Stress and Infertility: What to Know and What to Do

For couples dealing with infertility difficulties, trying to get pregnant can be especially stressful. Facing things like repeated, but unsuccessful, attempts at IVF, or repeated, but unsuccessful attempts at having a child through natural means, or facing multiple miscarriages – can generate ultra-high levels of stress. This kind of stress is normal and natural, after all. Coping with the ongoing uncertainty and risk inherent to infertility is naturally stressful.

Moreover, in what may seem like an unfair state of affairs, scientists are finding more and more evidence indicating that high levels of chronic stress have a significant, negative impact on the body’s ability to conceive and carry a fetus to term. In a word, in general, the harder you work at getting pregnant, the more you may tend to “stress out” over the outcome. Further, the more stress you carry, the less likely you are to get pregnant and to carry the pregnancy to term.

The underlying reason is that the female human body is exquisitely programed to protect and nurture the growing fetus. When under unusual levels of stress, the body has a “stress response” in which a variety of chemicals are released that serve to protect core functions – such as the brain and the food processing system – and to basically shut down non-core functions, such as the reproductive system. Believe it or not, the bodily system responds to stress as a signal that the time is not right for conception or healthy growth of a fetus.

But before you get even more upset, let’s quickly get to the punchline of this article: Yes, stress has a negative impact on fertility. However, as we shall see shortly, happily, this stress can actually be managed or mitigated. i.e., reduced to acceptable levels. With a bit of conscious effort, you can reduce your stress to healthy levels that foster pregnancy and carrying a baby to term.

Here is a brief summary of some of the key research findings regarding stress and infertility to date:

  • In 1993 a study was done comparing the psychological stress impact (i.e. physical impact) of infertility with the stress of living with illnesses such as HIV, heart disease, chronic pain, and cancer. The study results indicated that the physical impact of living with the psychological stress of infertility were remarkably similar to the impacts of living with serious physical illness. That is, the psychological stress of living with the ongoing challenges of infertility is physically taxing to the body.
  • In 2006, a comprehensive review of a large and growing body of independent studies show that living with chronic/ongoing stress tends to dampen or even shut down the activity of the reproductive system, including the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and gonads.
  • In 2009 a study was done that found that women living with high/chronic levels of stressful life events may have less favorable IVF outcomes.
  • In 2010 a study done by Oxford University and the National Institutes of Health, studied the levels of a substance secreted by the salivary glands called alpha-amylase, which has been positively correlated with high levels of stress. In other words, low levels of alpha-amylase correlate with low levels of stress, and high levels of alpha-amylase correlate with high levels of stress. The study found that 25% of women with the highest levels of alpha-amylase (i.e. under the most stress) have significantly more trouble conceiving than women with low levels of alpha-amylase.
  • A 2018 study conducted by Boston University’s School of Public Health found that women living with higher levels of chronic stress experienced lower rates of conception.

This information might be upsetting initially. Before you “go there”, however, you should also understand that there are plenty of methods available to positively and effectively help you manage and significantly reduce your stress levels.

Alice Domar, PhD, Executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, and a long-time fertility researcher, has developed a simple, comprehensive program integrating yoga, meditation and cognitive behavioral techniques used to manage and overcome stressful negative thoughts and cognitive distortions that fuel the stress response. Her holistic program includes:

  • Talk therapy. You learn to challenge negative, false thoughts such as “I’ll never get pregnant”, or self-blame.
  • Methods for pregnant women and their partners to open up to each other and to listen to each other without trying to fix them or assign blame, but rather to reaffirm their love and commitment toward each other.
  • Hatha yoga, which is a combination of postures and deep breathing. This is a method that helps women to re-develop a sense of connection to their bodies and themselves, as well as producing overall reduction in stress levels.

There are additional research-based methods to help manage stress levels:

  • Eat healthy/Mediterranean: When stressed, we tend to reach for processed, sugary foods, which are empty calories and cause us to gain weight. But studies have found that women who eat a Mediterranean-style diet (lots of whole grains, omega-3 fatty acids, fish, and soy) are much more likely to conceive than women who eat a diet that’s full of heavily processed foods and high in fat.
  • Watch your weight: Emotional stress leads to “emotional eating”; i.e. eating for emotional comfort. And emotional eating leads to weight gain and being overweight – or obese – makes it all the harder to get or stay pregnant.
  • Exercise for the “just-right” amount – not too little, not too much. Physical exercise lowers overall stress levels and boosts fertility. But we’re talking “moderation in all things”, meaning exercise in the 1 – 5 hours per week range, doing activities like walking. Paradoxically, overdoing it exercise-wise means being less likely to get pregnant, probably because it creates too much stress on the body.

The upshot of this is that yes, dealing with infertility issues can be stressful, and that yes, stress is a complicating factor. The good news is that yes, all this stress is completely manageable with just a few simple lifestyle adjustments. Your infertility concerns can – and will – be solved with your commitment to some simple changes and additions to your lifestyle, and when you see your brand-new baby for the first time, you’ll know it was all worth it.

Work with your OB/GYN and be completely open and candid about your stress levels when you are meeting with them at every appointment along your journey. We are here for you. If you have any questions about your stress levels and how they may be affecting your fertility, please contact our office serving Somerset County. You can call 908-757-9555 or click here to contact us online and we will get back to you for an appointment. Our offices in Edison and Somerset serve the Middlesex and Somerset County areas of New Jersey.

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