It’s simply a fact. Chronic, unmanaged stress impacts EVERY aspect of health in a negative way.
Perhaps nobody hears “just relax” more than the infertile couple, particulary the female partner who is having difficulty conceiving. At first, it’s something taken to heart. After hearing it over and over, it becomes blatantly offensive.
The bottom line, though, is that stress is often the only thing preventing you from getting pregnant. I’m going to explain the ways that stress affects fertility so you can understand just how deep this can go.
Also, before I get started I want to point something out. Going on a vacation, or drinking a few glasses of wine, or doing other temporary things that temporarily relieve stress is often not enough. In fact, going on vacation can be, in and of itself, stressful. And, the alcohol in wine is not exactly GOOD for your nervous system OR your liver, both of which are essential for proper hormone function.
The kind of stress management necessary for fertility enhancement requires a COMMITMENT to continually work on lessening the effects of stress on your life. It’s a matter of taking full responsibility for yourself and dealing with the things that “stress you out” right here, right now. Not waiting for a vacation, not waiting for Friday night to roll around for that opportunity to drink a few. This minute, right here, right now, all the time..
So, what I want to focus on in this article is telling you that the effect of stress on fertility is VERY REAL, and can be VERY SEVERE. And, the older you are, the MORE it affects you because of the inescapable fact that as we age, we ALL become more susceptible to stress, to deterioration, to injury, etc… (And, if you do fall into this category of “older”, I strongly encourage you not to feel sorry for yourself. It’s not going to help and, honestly, all of us have to deal with that so it’s not just you. Your time and energy is much better spent learning tools to manage your stress, like those outlined in these online courses I created for you.)
Something else important. It’s impossible to ELIMINATE stress. So, I’m not trying to scare you here. The idea isn’t to avoid stress like it’s some kind of plague or evil thing. Stress is necessary. It’s what helps us grow. It gives us strength and allows us to learn new things. Problems arise when we allow stress to become unmanageable, to dominate us, and to cause us to waste our life energy.
Again, in several of my online courses I go into detail about this topic, and teach you ways to significantly reduce and continually minimize your stress levels.
Chronic Stress Affects Your Ovulation – And Not In A Helpful Way
Cortisol, the body’s primary “stress hormone” (although cortisol also does many GOOD things, it is also a central driver of our physiological stress response), is a very strong blocker of many other hormones.
Why is this? It’s simple actually. When you are under threat (or even just a perceived threat — real or not), your body very intelligently wants to marshal as many resources as possible to fight of the threat RIGHT NOW. Things like digesting food, reflective/spiritual thinking, positive feelings, and (yes) reproduction take a definitive back seat.
Cortisol is a SURVIVAL hormone, not a reproductive hormone. It plays a small role in reproduction, but it plays a BIG role in survival. So, when you’re stressed, cortisol rises.
This leads to a few unhelpful effects for your fertility. Well, actually more than just a few. But there a few I’ll mention here because they’re the big ones.
First, cortisol will upset the rhythm of your LH secretion. If you don’t know what LH is, it is Luteinizing Hormone, and it is THE hormone that triggers your ovulation. When LH secretion is not timed properly, your egg PROBABLY isn’t mature at the time ovulation, or it’s TOO mature, because the LH surge that triggers the follicle to rupture is, well, poorly timed.
Think of it like this: There’s a communication happening between your ovary and brain. The ovary is telling the brain “OK, I’m almost ready…” and the brain is hearing that and getting ready to trigger ovulation. When the ovary finally says, “OK, it’s time!”, the brain will send the LH out in a big pulse, called a “surge”.
Cortisol is like static on that line of communication. Like interference causing a poor cellphone signal. Your ovary and brain are unable to coordinate between each other and the timing of the LH surge is off.
Stored sugar is also released into the bloodstream in response to cortisol surges. What this means is that your blood sugar goes up even though you didn’t eat any sugar. It’s a brilliant thing if you are walking in the forest and see a grizzly bear — you’re going to need to run really fast, really soon. So, your body very wisely raises its blood sugar levels to provide the energy for what will be a run for your life.
But, chronically elevated — or unstable — cortisol levels will cause havoc with your blood sugar system. And this, in turn, is absolutely NOT HELPFUL for your fertility or your ovulation. That’s because excessive or unstable insulin causes abnormal follicle growth. In fact, it is one of the drivers of PCOS — a condition where ovulation is either rare or absent. Just like anything else, there’s a spectrum here and even if you haven’t been diagnosed with overt PCOS, your stress may still be affecting your ovulation JUST ENOUGH to cause problems with your eggs.
Chronic Stress Affects Sleep – Which In Turn Affects Egg Quality
Unmanaged stress will also lead to sleep disturbances. Your body has a 24-hour clock — labeled scientifically as “circadian rhythm”. This 24-hour clock is driven primarily by (you guessed it) cortisol.
So, that’s TWO areas where cortisol, our primary “stress hormone”, is a key player in things that affect fertility. Let’s talk about how it affects sleep and, consequently, reproductive function.
Your circadian rhythm is a wave. In the morning, cortisol is high. As you go through your day, it gradually drops until, at night, it reaches its lowest point around bedtime. As you sleep, cortisol gradually rises, until it once again reaches a peak when you wake up the next morning.
This wave continues, day after day after day, as long as you live. It’s a natural wave that is produced by your biological clock timed according to the rising and setting of the sun.
This cortisol wave is necessary to guide and stabilize your metabolism on a 24-hour cycle. It is essential for the proper function of every single cell in your body. Every single cell. Brain, heart, lung, liver, kidney, muscle, bone — and yes — gonadal cells (meaning ovary or testicle).
When you are chronically stressed, inevitably your cortisol levels are going to become unstable, and eventually over time they will stay low. Hence, disturbed sleep patterns will invariably wreck your 24-hour cortisol wave.
And, when that wave is disrupted, it disrupts the normal, natural function of — you got it — EVERY SINGLE CELL in your body. All of the ones I just mentioned, including your reproductive ones.
Another fun effect of sleep disturbance: Growth Hormone levels are dramatically decreased.
You see, your body does something very important while you sleep. It heals. Pretty much all tissue regeneration occurs while you sleep. This is why people who are severely injured go into a coma. The body instinctively sleeps when tissue damage is severe because it has a lot of repair work to do.
So, not sleeping properly — which includes going to bed super late or just not sleeping enough hours — might be the fertility-killer you never expected.
Chronic Stress Lowers Progesterone
Here’s another lovely effect of stress that nobody thinks of, but that can devastate your ability to not only get pregnant, but STAY pregnant. Chronic stress can lead to low progesterone levels, even the dreaded “Luteal Phase Defect” that so many talk about.
Yet, this is not a defect. Not at all. Again, when your body is under threat — whether real or perceived — it shifts resources towards immediate survival. And, it just so happens that cortisol and progesterone have a common source — pregnenolone.
When you are chronically stressed, your body wants to produce more cortisol. Far from a malfunction, this ramped-up cortisol production is a reflection of your body doing its best to keep you alive.
But, in order to keep the cortisol factory operating at full speed, your body has to make a choice… More cortisol vs. more progesterone. That’s because, AGAIN, cortisol and progesterone have a common source.
Every single time your body will choose more cortisol over more progesterone if it’s under threat. Every single time, without fail.
And so, not only is stress de-synchronizing your LH surge (which will potentially negatively impact progesterone levels), it’s also literally stealing away the stuff your body uses to MAKE progesterone in the first place.
Hence, we have the THIRD fertility-killing effect of excess cortisol. (Notice here I said EXCESS cortisol. Because cortisol, in and of itself, is not BAD for fertility. That’s very important to remember.)
Chronic Stress Changes Your Circulation – In Ways That Move Blood AWAY From Reproductive Organs
When you are under threat — again, whether real or perceived — blood circulation patterns change. Dramatically.
It’s been long known that stress raises blood pressure. And, the (very intelligent) reason for this is that you’re not much good to fight, or run, for your life if your blood is all pooled deep within your internal organs.
So, a stressful situation will trigger a rise in blood pressure to push blood upwards to your brain and sensory organs, and outward to your limbs and muscles. In other words, get ready to fight or run like heck.
This takes a good deal of blood away from ALL your internal organs except your heart and your lungs. That means your digestive organs, your kidneys, your liver, and (you guessed it) your reproductive organs all have reduced blood supply.
Blood is absolutely essential for life, and absolutely essential for reproduction. Not only does it nourish and bring nutrients to the follicle and egg, it also builds and brings nutrients into the uterine lining. That means, simply put, less blood equals less potential for new life to emerge.
Not only that, but think about the fact that stress moves blood away from the digestive tract. That, in and of itself, means impaired nutrient absorption. Not only is there LESS blood in and around your ovaries and uterus — the blood is less nutrient-dense. A proverbial “double whammy”.
Chronic Stress Leads To Chronic Inflammation
One of cortisol’s most important – and life saving – effects is its ability to suppress the immune system. Yes, that’s right, I said SUPPRESS the immune system.
Your immune system is absolutely critical to your survival. But, unchecked it would literally eat you alive. Your immune system has killer cells that literally eat other cells. Turned against your healthy tissue, these killer cells can cause a LOT of damage. In fact, there are disorders classified as “autoimmune” where this actually happens — our own immune cells try to destroy healthy tissue, causing all kinds of problems.
One of our body’s primary mechanisms for regulating the immune system is through the secretion of cortisol. Part of this is adaptive in that if we are running for our lives the last thing we need is for our sprained or broken ankle to swell up and keep us from continuing to run as fast as we can. So, when cortisol levels are high during a stressful event, it is actually HELPFUL that the immune reaction called “inflammation” is kept at bay.
In the aftermath of a stressful event or injury, the hurt tissue will rapidly and often severely swell. This inflammation is a normal and necessary immune response that is a critical stage in the healing process. So, just like cortisol, inflammation is not inherently evil.
Issues arise, however, when cortisol levels — driven by chronic, poorly managed stress — become chronically elevated and/or unstable. In this case, immune function becomes “abnormal”. Tissue repair and regeneration is interrupted because immune function is not properly regulated. And, eventually, the system begins to break down and we get the opposite effect and your body becomes subjected to a chronic, low-grade inflammation.
This ongoing mild inflammation is absolutely devastating to every tissue and cell, especially the reproductive tract. Eggs are extremely fragile and, when exposed to elevated levels of inflammatory chemicals and by-products, are easily damaged.
Conventional science used to scoff at this concept of chronic inflammation damaging fertility. But, it is now widely accepted in the scientific community that endometriosis and even PCOS — among other causes of infertility — are often associated with chronic inflammation.
So, What Now?
I’ve just told you about 5 ways that stress has significant negative impacts on your fertility. The question is, what are you going to do about it?
It’s not for certain that stress is the complete reason why you aren’t conceiving. But, I can tell you this — being chronically stressed out WILL NOT help. Ever. So, the best thing you can do — not just for your fertility, but for your sanity, your longevity, your LIFE — is to learn how to properly manage stress. Doing so means you no longer suffer the damage caused by slower healing, abnormal immune function, lack of rest, suboptimal nutrient absorption, and the other countless effects chronic stress brings.
I strongly recommend you watch one of my online courses related to stress management. They are short, easily digestible, and extremely down-to-earth and practical. They’ll give you powerful, simple tools you can start using TODAY to tackle stress and learn how to keep it to a minimum once and for all.
Also, if you have questions or want more info, feel free to leave a comment. I’m always interested to know what you think and what you’re interested in learning more about.