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  • Writer's pictureIsobel Austin-Little


April is stress awareness month, and so there is no better time to draw attention to the emotional struggle that some couples go through when trying to make a baby, whether naturally or through IVF. We all know the negative impact that chronic stress can play on health, causing problems such as headaches, increased heart rate, weight gain, high blood pressure and shallow breathing. There is also a lot of information and research on the negative impact on mental health, so what about infertility? Symptoms of infertility-related stress can mirror those associated with long term chronic stress. For example, we know from studies that women seeking infertility treatment found more than half showed signs of depression, and about 3 in 4 showed signs of anxiety.

Although it is a controversial topic, research suggests that women experiencing stress day-to-day had lowered chances of conceiving.

A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined the association between perceived stress among men and women and their ability to conceive. They found that greater perceived stress among women, but not men, was associated with lower couple conception rates. The study also highlighted that reduced fertility was also observed when one couple was more stressed than the other.

A study carried out by the National Institute of Health and Oxford University found that 25% of women under stress during their fertile days are 12% less likely to conceive. There are a few reasons why this could happen, so let's look at them.

Firstly, when you feel stressed and anxious, the body triggers its flight or fright response, its survival mode, releasing the stress hormone cortisol and cortico-releasing hormone (CRH). Cortisol can interfere with the complex interplay between hormones across a menstrual cycle. Even the smallest of changes can impact that cycle, making It difficult to gauge when your fertile window is, lowering the chances of a successful pregnancy that month.

Secondly, in extreme cases of chronic stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, which controls the reproductive system, is suppressed. This disrupts the essential feedback and communication between the brain and the ovaries and can prevent ovulation from occurring, or it can stop periods full stop.

Other ways stress can affect conception. Stress can negatively impact a couple's sleep quality, which in turn can impact fertility. A study found that women who have insomnia are four times more likely to develop infertility. Stress can also decrease your libido, resulting in you and your partner having less frequent intercourse and fewer opportunities for the sperm and egg to meet.

What about men? Stress affects sperm health too. High physical and emotional stress reduces sperm count, which lowers the chances of conception.

Not one couple has come through my doors and not been stressed in some shape or form. By the time they come to see me, they might have had a year of trying to conceive or a few failed rounds of IVF, and of course, their stress levels are skyrocketing high. There is so much pressure these days to be able to do it all; work, be social, make a family, earn money, but sometimes we need to take a step back and take time for ourselves. Learn how to unwind and support the body through stressful times.

Stress is very much a subjective experience and there is no one size fits all approach to supporting a couple in reducing their stress levels. So here are just a few tips to help you:

  1. Movement is so important. Whether you are trying for a baby or not, moderate exercise like walking, yoga, swimming, and Pilates is great for the mindset. Movement releases all those wonderful endorphins that make you feel good and directly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

  2. A problem shared is a problem halved. Bottling everything up can cause extra stress. Being open and honest about your emotions can help alleviate stress. Remember, it is ok you feel sad; you are human after all!

  3. Make time for you and your partner. Book a date night, a supper with friends, a holiday away. Keep making each other laugh, keep smiling and keep the romance alive, both in and outside the bedroom.

  4. Mindfulness or breathwork can be powerful tools for stress management, and there is research to back this up. For example, a randomised control trial carried out in 2002 showed that conception outcomes improved when a mindfulness intervention was implemented to help manage stress.

  5. Spend less time on social media. Social media is a "double-edged sword". It can be a support network for couples trying to concieve, but at the same time, it can provide emotional riggers that promote feelings of anxiety. A healthy balance needs to be established between what I like to call "green time and screen-time".

  6. Book in Acupuncture. Not only can acupuncture promote blood flow to organs (which is always brilliant with fertility clients), but it can support relaxation and relieve stress. Acupuncture can be particularly beneficial in the lead up to and during an IVF cycle, including the two week wait period, which is a highly anxious period,

  7. Book in with a fertility specialist. If you haven't already, get in touch with a fertility specialist to support you on your fertility journey. We offer so so much for than just helping you understand what foods to eat. A fertility specialist will be able to guide you through mainstream and functional testing, help you address hormonal related conditions, biochemical imbalances, and nutrient deficiencies, address sperm and egg health, and advise you on the most suitable supplements. Most importantly, your protocol is tailored to you and your needs as that are the best way to get results.

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