For many couples, trying for a baby can be incredibly stressful. Whether it’s taking you longer than hoped for to fall pregnant, or you are on the emotional roller coaster of assisted techniques, such as IVF, stress can play a part in influencing your fertility.
The mantra, ‘just relax – it will happen’ is not particularly helpful though! Understanding the affect of stress on your hormones and on the health of your eggs and sperm, may encourage you to consider ways to reduce stress, to optimize your pregnancy chances.
How does stress affect fertility?
To understand how stress affects fertility, we need to cover a little human biology. Stay with me! In times of stress, it is necessary for your body to release substances called glucocorticoids (GC). GC are hormones which help you generate energy to deal with a stressful situation. They aid production of glucose by your liver, and mobilize amino acids and fats to enable specific stress responses. Increased heart and breathing rates, larger blood flow to muscles, improved sense of hearing and vision and sweating are just some bodily functions which occur to help you deal with stress and they require a huge increase in energy. This is commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
This is all well and good if the stressful situation goes away, but over time if the level of stress persists, elevated GC levels can impact on reproductive function. Sustained release of GC may disrupt release of other hormones by the brain such as Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinising Hormone (LH). These guys help regulate the function of your ovaries and testes. FSH and LH help you produce important hormones like oestrogen and testosterone. They also influence how the ovarian follicle matures in women (which helps you create a healthy egg), or how sperm is produced in males. In times of stress, there is essentially a movement of resources away from reproductive function, so the body can perform other important functions to deal with the stressor at hand. Put simply, your body is under too much pressure to think about continuing the species! 
In men, psychological stress can decrease sperm count, motility (how well the little guys swim) and morphology (how normal the little guys look). Raised GC levels lower testosterone and have been shown to decrease the number of Leydig cells in the testes, which are involved with sperm production.
In women, high GC influence hormone levels which affect ovulation. In IVF, lower levels of cortisol (your stress hormone) have been found in the surrounding fluid of higher quality fertilized eggs, when compared to eggs which did not fertilise. Egg retrieval rates are also lower in those women undergoing IVF who are exposed to high levels of stress . Lower levels of GC are important to sustain the corpus luteum, the little shell left after the egg is released from the follicle during ovulation. The corpus luteum helps support hormone release after your egg is fertilized, until the developing placenta can take over.
In studies examining the impact of emotional stress on time to pregnancy (TTP) and infertility, a twofold increased risk of infertility has been shown in those women with high levels of stress markers in their saliva.
Other research has shown that increased stress markers in the saliva during a 6-day fertile window meant that women were less likely to conceive. The stress marker measured here was alpha-amylase. This is associated with good blood flow to the fallopian tubes as well as transportation of egg and sperm through the uterus.
Stress also lowers sex drive because of suppression of hormones that drive libido. Anyone who has gone down the road of assisted reproductive technology will tell you this also brings a whole lot of stress!
The impact of high stress levels goes beyond trying to conceive. Elevated stress hormones in the mother during pregnancy may have harmful affects later in life for the child, including increased risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and hypertension.
Stress reduction techniques have been shown to have positive effects, both in natural conception and during IVF.
8 ways to reduce the impact of stress on your fertility
- Several studies have emerged on the benefits of acupuncture to reduce stress, including improvement in clinical pregnancy and live birth rate.
- Mild to moderate exercise has beneficial effects on lowering stress levels and fertility and has been shown to reduce TTP. 
- Mindfulness techniques have been shown to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety in women with fertility concerns. Increase in pregnancy rates has been shown using mind/body techniques. 
- Talk to somebody! Women who receive support and counseling when dealing with stress and infertility, improve their pregnancy chances.
- Yoga has also demonstrated positive benefits in quality of life and mood in those awaiting IVF treatment. 
- Eating a healthy diet rich in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, lean meats, wholegrains and good fats will protect your cells against the harmful effects of stress. Maintaining a healthy body weight is strongly linked to fertility, as this reduces the risk of blood sugar issues and hormone disruption.
- Sleep soundly! Adults who sleep 8 hours or more each night report lower stress levels.
- Naturopathic treatment focuses on reducing stress and anxiety using herbs and nutrients which support the nervous system. Naturopathic care uses traditional and evidence-based remedies which lower the effect of stress on the body, promoting wellbeing.
The take-home message here is that reducing stress levels goes a long way to improving your fertility. Be kind to yourself and your body will be as healthy as possible. Optimum health is the BEST guarantee of fertility.
1. Whirledge & Cidlowski Minerva Endocrinology 2010
2. Ebbeson et al. Human Reproduction 2009
3. Lynch et al. Human Reproduction 2014
4. Buck Louis et al. Fertility & Sterility 2011
5. Sharma et al. Reproductive Biology & Endocrinology 2013
6. Galhardo, Cunha & Pinto-Gouveia, Fertility & Sterility 2013
7. Oron et al. Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 2015
8. American Psychological Association, 2017