Stress and Fertility: How They are Related and What You can Do About it

By CNY Fertility Updated on
Stress and Fertility: How They are Related and What You can Do About it

It is natural to feel upset, frustrated, and stressed when dealing with fertility issues. Stress causes strain on almost every part of the body, and over time it may cause serious health problems, including infertility.  

The unfortunate truth is stress and infertility are cosmically intertwined and can lead to a rather vicious, reinforcing cycle. Studies show that:

  • Stress may cause or act as a contributing to infertility.
  • Infertility itself causes or contributes significantly to levels of stress.

Upon entering this vicious loop of stress and infertility, it may feel like there is no hope. Fortunately, there are many resources out there to mitigate fertility-induced stress and treat stress-induced infertility.

This article will cover research on how stress can impact both male and female fertility (and vice versa) and also provide some tips and strategies to reduce stress to improve your chances of getting pregnant.  

What is Stress?

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension.  It can disrupt many of your body’s natural processes and cause physical symptoms like aches and pains, exhaustion, and difficulty having sex.  

Stress occurs naturally and is the body’s response to challenges or demands.   Any event that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous can cause stress.   

How Can Stress Cause Female Fertility Issues

The female reproductive system is one of many systems that are affected by stress.  Stress can cause imbalances of hormones, reduce sex drive, and cause ovulation issues.  All of these symptoms of stress can make it more difficult for women to achieve pregnancy. 

When our bodies sense stress, they recognize it is not an ideal time to have a baby and react accordingly. Periods of stress also greatly impact our lifestyles and cause people to turn to unhealthy habits like drinking too much caffeine, or smoking, and drinking too much alcohol—all of which are detrimental to a woman’s health and fertility.

Menstrual Cycle Regularity

Research indicates that stress is significantly associated with menstrual cycle irregularity.   Women with irregular menstrual cycles or irregular periods are less likely to get pregnant compared to women with regular cycles.  Timing intercourse properly is extremely difficult with irregular periods and it is necessary to conceive naturally or with intrauterine insemination (IUI).  

In 2015, researchers administered perceived stress assessments to 259 women.  The study found that the high-stress group had lower levels of several hormones known to affect ovulation, menstruation, and fertility.  Women in the high-stress group had lower levels of estrogen, luteinizing hormone (LH), and progesterone, and higher levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) during the luteal phase of their cycles.  These hormonal imbalances are indicative of a greater chance of anovulation (when an egg doesn’t release from the ovary during the menstrual cycle.)  Without ovulation, pregnancy cannot occur because there is no egg available for the sperm to fertilize.  

Other studies have produced similar results and shown that stress can cause menstrual cycle irregularity for women with no known reproductive disorders.

Stress Conception Rates and Time to Pregnancy

Numerous recent studies have established a link between a woman’s day-to-day stress levels and lowered pregnancy chances.  

In a study conducted from 2005 to 2009, researchers measured the effects of stress on fertility in 501 couples between the ages of 18 and 40 years old.  The women enrolled in the study had no known fertility problems and were just starting to try and get pregnant. To measure levels of stress, researchers collected saliva samples.  They ested the levels of cortisol and alpha-amylase (two known biomarkers of stress) the morning following enrollment and the morning following their first study-observed menstrual cycle.

Women who had high alpha-amylase levels in their saliva were 29% less likely to get pregnant each month and were twice as likely to be diagnosed with infertility (having unprotected sex for 12 months without achieving pregnancy) than women with lower levels.

How Can Stress Contribute to Male Fertility Issues

Stress and its effects on fertility aren’t only limited to women.  Stress is known to impact several aspects of male fertility especially sperm quality negatively.  

Studies have found that stress can negatively impact the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) and testosterone in men.  This can cause complications in spermatogenesis (the production of sperm), resulting in reduced sperm quality.  

It is important to recognize that stress can come from many places, especially at work. For example, one study found that many stressful situations at work can nagetivaely affect men’s semen volume and the percentage of sperm with observed normal motility. The results led researchers to conclude that occupational stress can affect semen quality.  

If men are struggling with their sexual function, especially getting or maintaining an erection, they are very likely to experience stress.   However, men aren’t the only one’s who suffer from stress due to erectile dysfunction (ED).  ED can also cause stress in the female partner.

Undergoing fertility treatment can also cause men’s stress levels to increase.  Research has found that men’s stress levels significantly increase after diagnosis of male infertility, follow-up appointments, and failed in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.

If your dealing with stress and male factor infertility, it’s important to keep in mind that there is lots you can do to actually improve sperm quality outside of managing stress. For example, limiting alcohol and tobacco, eating certain foods, and taking male fertility supplements can significantly increase sperm count and motility.

How Infertility Can Cause Stress

As mentioned previously, getting pregnant isn’t always easy, and when women and couples struggle to conceive, they experience stress.  Research has found that a diagnosis of infertility can cause both men and women to experience stress. Stress can also increase throughout fertility treatment, especially after failed in-vitro fertilization treatment.

Research has found that infertility-related stress can be caused by social pressures, testing, diagnosis, treatments, failures, and fertility treatment costs.

How to Manage Stress When Suffering from Infertility

Fortunately,  studies have shown that implementing relaxation techniques can effectively reduce stress and negative emotions.   A review of 37 studies found that relaxation techniques can reduce negative emotions in patients undergoing medical treatment.     In extreme cases, fertility specialists may recommend psychological intervention.  

Psychosocial interventions to eliminate stress may improve marital relationships, pregnancy rates, and more among infertile couples.

At CNY Fertility, we recognize the importance of reducing stress to ensure better results; that is why we offer fertility support and many resources to our patients who are looking for a little empathy and encouragement.  If you’re feeling stressed, we recommend trying the following relaxation techniques.

Yoga

Yoga is a wonderful way to get your body moving, reduce stress, and also improve fertility.  Regualrly pacticing yoga can help improve your natural fertility through three main benefits: 1. reducing stress 2. improving circulation 3. balancing your immune system.  

Yoga is a highly-touted stress-reduction technique that can help to reduce concentrations of cortisol, the stress hormone we previously mentioned, in the body. Research has shown that after just 16 weeks of regularly practicing yoga you may experience significant reductions in stress and improvements in several other psychological health measures.

Acupuncture

Research shows that acupuncture can reduce physiological stress immediately following treatment and over time.   Acupuncture is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine that uses hair-thin, surgically sterilized needles to treat a variety of diseases, relieve pain, and improve general health.

Precisely placed needles trigger the brain to release endorphins that help to moderate the stress response and help to balance hormone levels in the body.   Acupuncture is also known to reduce cortisol levels and it has even been shown to help reduce depression.

Massage

Massages have many uses in fertility treatment, including reducing stress.  Research has shown that massages can help to reduce stress levels significantly.

Other studies have shown that fertility massages may help to decrease cortisol levels and also improve embryo implantation.

Fertility massages provide an additional laundry list of benefits like, increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs, helping to break down scar tissue and adhesions, improving absorption of vitamins and nutrients and helping to regulate the menstrual cycle.  

Drink Water and Eat Right

Everyone knows that water is essential for health and without it we can’t survive. In addition, drinking water helps to prevent dehydration.  Dehydration can cause unclear thinking and mood changes that eventually lead to stress.

Drinking plain water is also associated with a decreased risk of depression and anxiety?    

Research shows that eating a healthy diet and maintaining optimal levels of vitamins and nutrients can also help to keep stress levels under control.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is an eastern ancient practice that has been around for thousands of years and provides innumerable benefits for both mind and body. At CNY Fertility, we embrace the practice and encourage it to all clients. By devoting 10 to 15 minutes each morning and/or before bed to meditate you can increase focus, transform your thoughts, reduce your heart rate, and improve sleep.  

Research indicates that in addition to reducing stress, practicing meditation and mindfulness may also improve infertility treatment and IVF outcomes.   In one study, researchers separated infertile women into a mindfulness treatment group and a control group.  At the end of treatment, the mindfulness group showed a significant increase in mindfulness, self-compassion, and pregnancy rates compared to the control group.

Get Enough Sleep

Lack of sleep causes stress and stress can cause difficulties sleeping.   In addition to causing stress, many studies have confirmed that insufficient sleep and sleep disturbances can affect men’s and women’s overall and reproductive health.

To reduce stress and improve sleep, doctors recommend reducing your stress levels before bed by swapping out TV time for late-night yoga, meditation, or stretching. Sticking to a regulated sleep schedule will also help to ensure you are getting 7-8 hours a night of good quality and restful sleep.

Professional Support

Just as there is no shame in going to the doctor when you are sick or visiting a fertility specialist when you are suffering from infertility, there is no shame in seeking professional support and visiting a psychologist when struggling with stress.  Numerous studies have found that psychosocial interventions focused on eliminating stress can help to improve psychological outcomes, marital relationships, and pregnancy rates among infertile couples.

The fertility treatment journey can be long and arduous.  Be sure to take note of your mental health throughout treatment and speak with a professional should you feel it necessary. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that involves therapists challenging a person’s negative patterns of thought about themselves and the world.  The goal of these sessions is to change unwanted behavior patterns or to treat stress or other mood disorders.  

Research has shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy can help to restore ovulation in women suffering from stress.  In a study of 16 women published by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), cognitive behavioral therapy helped to restore ovulation in 7 of 8 women.  An additional 8 women were used as a control group and did not receive treatment.  Only 2 of the women in the control group resumed ovulation.  

Stress and Fertility - Ovulation Returning after Cognitive Based Therapy Figure

Since 87.5% of the cognitive behavioral therapy group resumed ovulation and only 25% of the control group resumed ovulation, researchers concluded that tailored behavioral intervention is an efficacious treatment option for women who aren’t ovulating and are suffering from stress.  

The Bottom Line about Stress and Fertility

Stress can affect nearly every aspect of your health,  including your fertility.  Stress can have many causes, affects everyone, and impacts each individual differently.  We hope this article has shed some light on exactly how stress can affect your fertility and how a diagnosis of infertility or struggling to get pregnant can, in turn, cause more stress.  

If you are struggling to get pregnant and wish to speak with one of our knowledgeable providers about strategies to improve your natural fertility, fertility treatments and to learn about what may be causing your infertility, click here to request a consultation.  

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