Stress and Fertility

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nutrition for fertility

We all know what it is like to be stressed.

Stress is anything that the brain and body perceive as being stressful and can be caused by many things physical, environmental, or emotional. One major source of extreme emotional stress is the struggle to conceive and/or frequent miscarriages and it’s a frustrating (and upsetting) paradox that this stress can be the one thing that prevents you getting pregnant. It’s not uncommon to hear about a friend or family member that was working hard to get pregnant and, once they decided to stop trying or started the adoption/IVF process, they were able to conceive naturally, often without any assisted reproductive technologies. I want to give you some tips to prevent the wear and tear of stress on your body and improve your fertility.

What Does Stress do to Fertility?

One of the main reasons stress inhibits conception seems to have its roots in an evolutionary mechanism. As a species, if we were too stressed, it meant it was not a safe time to bring a baby into the world because of lack of food or shelter or attack from wild animals. The problem is that now the stressors we are under are hugely different than they were 100 or even 1000 years ago but we still respond to stress in exactly the same way we did hundreds of years ago, we produce cortisol as part of the ‘flight or fight mechanism’ that prepares us to run away from, danger. Our body doesn’t know the difference if were running away from dangerous wild animal or stressed over deadlines in work and 100’s of emails to reply to, so responds the same.

The reason stress can affect both male and female fertility is rooted in our hormones. Our sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone for women and testosterone for men) and our main stress hormone cortisol are all made from cholesterol. Cholesterol is the backbone of all our steroid hormones.

There are two main pathways that these hormones can take from the cholesterol molecule. One creates testosterone and oestrogen while the other creates progesterone and then cortisol. When males are stressed, the emphasis on hormone production is shunted away from testosterone and towards making cortisol. When females are stressed, their hormone production is shunted from progesterone and towards cortisol. Simply put, when men are stressed, their testosterone drops and when women are stressed their progesterone drops.

For optimal fertility men need healthy testosterone levels in order to produce plenty of healthy sperm, strong, linear swimmers with a good morphology vital for making the long journey from the testes to the female fallopian tube.

For women, progesterone levels are needed primarily for keeping the uterine lining in place for a fertilised egg to implant into, to maintain the pregnancy. If the woman has been under acute or chronic stress her body prioritises cortisol production over progesterone and, as a result, her blood levels of progesterone drop.

Supporting your adrenal glands supports your fertility.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for the adrenal glands. The state of our adrenal glands is the sum of many years of stress, poor diet and lifestyle and it may take many months to restore them to optimal health. However, that doesn’t mean that making changes now won’t have an immediate effect on your health and fertility.

Diet plays a major role in promoting fertility and most women who are trying to conceive are probably already eliminating/cutting down caffeine and alcohol, and working on eating a healthier diet. Eating a diet that puts less “stress” on the adrenal glands reduces elevated cortisol and helps maintain healthy levels of the reproductive hormones needed for fertility, for both men and women.

When our blood sugar levels drop too low this is considered a “stressor” on the body causing the brain to trigger the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. Cortisol then tries to rectify the situation by putting more glucose into the blood, primarily from stores in the liver. So one way to reduce this extra production of cortisol is to avoid that blood sugar dip by eating 3 meals (and 1 or 2 snacks) every day, this will help regulate your blood sugar levels by avoiding dramatic peaks and troughs. A slow steady rise and decline of blood glucose is less stressful on the adrenal glands and the pancreas which produces insulin to shuttle the glucose from the blood and into the cell so try to avoid meals that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and that contain healthy fat, fibre and protein as this will give you a steady rise in glucose after a meal instead of a sharp spike.

Learn to manage your stress We all have stress in our lives that’s unavoidable, but  learning techniques to deal with that stress that is important . One of the best ways to reduce excess cortisol is through exhalation. Spending some quiet time alone on a daily basis and focusing on slow steady breaths can do wonders for getting rid of excess cortisol. In addition aerobic exercise is also important for decreasing cortisol. This is one of the reasons we feel so much better after exercise

Good sleep hygiene, this means trying to get an average of 8 hours of sleep every night with the first 1-2 hours occurring before midnight when cortisol levels start to climb. If you stay up too late you will find it harder to fall asleep because of cortisol’s circadian rhythm. Cortisol levels should be at their highest in the morning and lowest in the evening; if we go to bed closer to 10 pm then we are following the normal hormonal rhythm of the body and good sleep cycles reduce stress on the body.

About the Author

Melissa Cahill is a Nutritional Therapist specilising Fertility, Breastfeeding & Womens’ Health.

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