Stress and Fertility
There is a connection between stress and fertility. It can affect both male and female reproductive health. Stress alone does not cause infertility. However, elevated stress levels can interfere with your ability to conceive.
Difficulty in trying for a baby is a source of immense emotional stress. It can bring on feelings of low self –esteem, guilt, isolation, depression and anxiety. Dr Alice Domar PhD examined the impact of infertility in comparison to other medical conditions. She found that women who were struggling with their infertility had the same levels of anxiety and depression as those who were diagnosed with cancer and HIV.
Trying to cope with fertility problems is a stressful journey. Finding ways to take care of yourself and lower your levels of stress may improve your chances of conception.
What is infertility?
As defined by the NHS; “Infertility is when a couple can’t get pregnant (conceive) despite having regular unprotected sex”. In the UK an estimated 3.4 million people have difficulty conceiving.
Infertility can be a result of a reproductive health condition such as Anovulation (failure to ovulate) Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), age related, low sperm count etc. According to the British Fertility Society, fertility problems are approximately:
- 30% due to the woman’s reproductive health
- 30% due to the man’s reproductive health
- 30-40% due to both the man and woman or to unknown causes (unexplained infertility)
How Stress can affect sperm quality
Stress can reduce sperm and the quality of semen. Research carried out by Teresa Janevic, Ph.D, et al, investigated whether stress affects sperm and semen quality. 193 men aged 38-49 had their levels of stress measured. These included perceived stress, stressful life events and stress in the workplace. The researchers found that sperm quality was lower in the men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year. Workplace stress was not found to directly affect semen quality. It was however, linked with lower testosterone levels which could affect reproductive health.
Stress can impact upon sperm production, morphology (shape) and motility (movement). Stress activates the release of glucocorticoids (steroid hormones that affect the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates). The levels of glucocorticoids could reduce testosterone levels and sperm production.
The number of free radicals can rise in the body due to stress. This can in turn cause damage to the DNA in sperm. Free radicals are unstable molecules that have uneven numbers of electrons. They are made when normal chemical changes take place in cells (cell metabolism). For example, when the body uses oxygen it creates a by-product of free radicals. Electrons like to be in pairs. Due to free radicals having uneven electron numbers, they seek out other electrons. This causes them to easily react with other molecules and take their electrons. Free radicals can damage parts of other cells such as DNA and protein by taking their electrons.
Antioxidants help stabilise free radicals making them less reactive. Antioxidants are molecules that are capable of giving an electron to a free radical whilst remaining stable. When the number of free radicals in the body is higher than the number of antioxidants available to balance them, oxidative stress occurs.
We all produce free radicals naturally in the body. Some of us are exposed to more of them through our environment. For example, pollution, certain pesticides and cleaners. Other contributing factors are stress, cigarettes, alcohol and diets high in fat and sugar.
Low levels of DNA damage to the sperm can be put right by the egg. Higher levels of damage can lead to early miscarriage and failed IVF cycles. (Scott, 2016)
Stress and Hormones
When we are under extreme stress, our bodies can prevent conception taking place. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released during times of stress . They signal to the body that the conditions are not ideal for conception to occur. Too much adrenaline can interfere with the amount of progesterone produced and the way it is utilised by the body. Progesterone is essential for maintaining and supporting pregnancy. Stress can be a contributing factor in progesterone deficiency which is associated with infertility, short menstrual cycles and early miscarriage.
Stress can also disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle. Cycles can become irregular and ovulation can cease to occur. High levels of stress hormones can sometimes affect the pituitary gland in the brain; causing it to release higher prolactin levels which suppress ovulation.
Elevated levels of cortisol can hinder the production and secretion of gonadotropin realising hormones – Luteinising hormone (LH) and Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). When the pituitary gland fails to release adequate amounts of LH and FSH the release of oestrogen and testosterone is inhibited. As well as reducing fertility, chronic stress can also reduce the libido.
Creating healthy sperm and eggs
It is important to create the right environment in the body before conception takes place. It can take 3 months for sperm to mature. The life cycle of an egg in preparation for ovulation is around 90 days. During this period many factors such as stress, diet, nutrition and hormone balance can influence the quality of the egg and sperm. This in turn can affect whether fertilisation and implantation takes place.
Reducing stress levels can improve reproductive health. Ideally changes to diet and lifestyle should be made at least three months before trying to conceive. Providing a better chance of creating optimal egg and sperm health.
How to reduce stress when trying to conceive
- Breathing exercises
- Preconception Reflexology treatments
- Self Care
- Change how you react to stressful situations
- Low to moderate intensity exercise (swimming, yoga etc)
- Stress can often lead to increased consumption of nicotine and alcohol. Reducing your intake of these substances can be beneficial to your health.
- For information on stress and more ways on how to deal with it, take a look at
Preconception reflexology is a specific form of reflexology therapy. The treatment focuses mainly on the reflexes associated with the reproductive and endocrine systems. The aim of preconception reflexology is to aid in reduction of stress and anxiety. The intention is to help improve wellbeing, sleep and hormonal balance. These are all factors that are important for conception. The treatments are designed for both men and women.
Lower your stress levels
Every one of us will experience some form of stress in our lives. We encounter small stresses on a daily basis. A few weeks of stress will not necessarily impact on your chances of getting pregnant. Long term stress and very stressful life events can affect ovulation and sperm quality.
The conception journey can be a stressful one. Is stress the reason for infertility or is infertility the cause of the stress? Either way, lowering your stress levels is one thing you can do to try and improve your chances of conception.
Whether trying to conceive naturally or going through IVF, reducing your stress levels should form a significant part of your conception plan.
British Fertility Society. What is infertility? [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/fei/what-is-infertility/. [Accessed 12 April 2019].
Dix, M. 2017. Everything You Should Know About Oxidative Stress. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/oxidative-stress. [Accessed 12 April 2019].
Domar, A.D, Zuttermeister P.C, Friedman R 1993. The psychological impact of infertility: a comparison with patients with other medical conditions. The Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 14/2, 45-52.
Janevic, T et al, 2014. Effects of work and life stress on semen quality. The Journal of Fertility and Sterility, 102/2, 530-538.
NHS. 2017. Infertility. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/infertility/. [Accessed 12 April 2019].
Rooney, K.L, and Domar, A.D 2018. The relationship between stress and infertility. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 20/1, 41-47.
Scott, B. (2016). Reflexology for Fertility. Watkins, pp.94-95, 97, 266.