Infertility can affect relationships with family and friends, cause financial difficulties, affect the relationship between partners, and negatively affect the couple’s sexual relationship. In short, infertility can cause stress affecting your ability to get pregnant.
But does this stress have an impact on fertility? Is it a fact that you can be infertile due to stress? Let’s dive in!
The Research Behind Stress and Fertility
Researchers have long been trying to figure out exactly how stress limits fertility. A study published in the Journal Fertility and Sterility found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that correlates with stress, have a harder time getting pregnant. In this study, saliva samples were collected from 274 women over six menstrual cycles (or until they became pregnant). It showed that the women with the highest levels of alpha-amylase during their first menstrual cycle were 12% less likely to become pregnant than women with lower levels of the enzyme.
Another Emory School of Medicine study, conducted by Sarah Berga, MD, found that women who had not ovulated for more than 6 months had high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The same brain regions that can regulate hormones needed for ovulation also respond to stress hormones such as cortisol. Of these women, seven of the eight participants who received stress management therapy began ovulating again, compared to only two of eight participants who did not receive therapy. The same link between stress and fertility exists in men, in whom high levels of stress can reduce testosterone production, so both partners may be affected by stress.
Depression & Anxiety
Finally, a study in Taiwan found that 40% of participants who received treatment for infertility were diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Other researchers have found that women struggling with infertility are affected by anxiety and depression at the same rate as women diagnosed with HIV or cancer. Since infertility is a real medical problem with a significant impact on lives, it is not surprising that it can cause the same anxiety as other serious medical problems.
Many researchers have also pointed out that most women who cannot conceive have physical reasons, but this is not always the case. Regardless, the woman feels more and more stress over time. So even if a physical cause is medically treated, it is possible that high stress levels make conception difficult.
Does stress actually cause infertility?
While it’s unlikely that stress alone can cause infertility, stress interferes with a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Research has shown that women with a history of depression are twice as likely to experience infertility. Anxiety also can prolong the time needed to achieve pregnancy.
Stress can affect the part of your brain (the hypothalamus) that regulates your hormones, which in turn regulate your menstrual cycle. If stress takes a toll on your body, then it could mean you ovulate later than usual, or not at all (stress-induced anovulation).
If you’re stressed, your cervical mucus may indicate that something’s not right. Rather than noticing increased wetness as you approach ovulation, you might find patches of wetness interspersed with dry days. It’s as if your body is trying to ovulate but the stress continues to delay it.
Being very stressed for a long time may make it harder to conceive. But trying for a baby can also be stressful in itself. In general, it makes sense to take steps to reduce stress while you’re trying for a baby, if only for your own peace of mind.
Does stress affect the ability to get pregnant?
Yes, and no.
The American Psychological Association notes that “psychological factors–while important–are secondary to biological ones.” Another leading authority on fertility research, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine explains that “even though infertility is very stressful, there isn’t any proof that stress causes infertility.”
A review of over 50 studies in Fertility and Sterility noted that, in men:
“Although some trends have been identified, larger-scale studies that adequately control all confounding variables are needed before conclusions can be made about the relationship between stress, psychotropic agents, and male infertility.”
A 2015 study in Nature Reviews Urology notes a similar sentiment.
If you have a stressful job or work long hours, you can stop beating yourself up about it. How you react to stress—whether channeling it into exercise or unhealthy habits like overeating—plays a bigger role.
What about everyday stressors/unhealthy habits?
There is some evidence that everyday stressors can have an impact on your chances of getting pregnant. Most experts, however, believe that this isn’t due directly to the stress, but from the unhealthy habits that most people turn to when they’re stressed out.
These may include:
- Avoiding sex
- Neglecting to exercise
Unhealthy habits affect both women and men when it comes to fertility.
5 tips to reduce stress when trying to get pregnant
If you are currently struggling with infertility, or just stress in general, there are many ways to reduce stress! Give one of the following options a try:
Educate yourself about the normal responses to infertility. Talk to other people going through infertility. Understand your medical condition and ask about treatment options.
Talk to your partner about your feelings and needs, and allow your partner to feel and cope differently. Talk about your differences and avoid conflict. Keep communicating with family and friends to avoid isolating yourself. Understand that you can talk about your situation without going into details and tell others how they can support you.
Doing activities you enjoy or exercising lightly can help release endorphins and serotonin, both of which improve your mood. Try moderate exercises such as swimming or walking. Even just setting aside time to do your favorite activities can relieve stress.
Meditation or yoga
Meditating can help clear your mind and relax your body. Not into sitting still? Try doing an hour of yoga a few times a week. Hatha yoga specifically focuses on breath and movement, without concentrating on mediation specifically. Both meditation and yoga can reduce stress hormones.
Deal with sexual stress
Sexual stress is common among couples with infertility, mostly because couples feel that this is an obligation or a duty rather than a fun activity. Couples can deal with this in several ways, including taking a break from baby-making, distinguishing between work and fun sex, and learning sensual contact that doesn’t lead to pregnancy.