(pi,hormo especially The reality is, most of us live busy lives. We spend the majority of our days rushing from one thing to another, multi-tasking at every opportunity and keeping up with the demands of the modern world. We don’t sleep enough, or make time to nourish ourselves physically and emotionally. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed, stressed and burnt out and can have many negative effects on our health, as well as on our ability to conceive.
In today’s post I’ll explain what happens when we experience stress and why this natural (and necessary) response can cause so many issues for women, including how and why it effects our fertility.
So what happens when we experience stress?
From an evolutionary perspective, stress is a survival technique necessary to keep us from danger. It ensures our bodies are able to deal with threatening situations so we can stay safe. A stressful event activates our sympathetic nervous system which releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that get the body prepared to either fight the potential threat or run away from it (known as the fight or flight response).
The problem is, in our modern lives we are very rarely in these life or death situations but our bodies still respond to a stressful trigger the same way, whether it’s real or perceived. In other words, our body responds the same way internally whether we’ve just had a near miss reversing the car or facing an incredibly overwhelming to-do list!
And while a close encounter with a pole only lasts a few seconds, for many people the perceived stress that comes with working long hours, meeting social obligations, trying to build a career and care for a family is chronic. That overflowing email inbox and trying to meet so many daily commitments never ends, and it means our bodies are constantly on high alert. Not surprisingly, this ongoing release of stress hormones can cause a number of health issues.
How stress affects fertility
Stress can reduce libido, lower sperm production in men and effect ovulation in women, causing absent or irregular menstrual cycles. Reducing your stress levels is therefore a really important factor in giving your body the best chance of conceiving naturally.
Feeling stressed also affects the food choices we make. We tend to have less willpower and time to make healthier choices when we’re experiencing stress. As you now know, stress releases cortisol and cortisol stimulates appetite and causes food cravings – generally for foods high in carbohydrates and sugar. You might also find yourself drinking more alcohol to relax and unwind. When trying to conceive both of these are not ideal and can cause inflammation in the body. The aim of preconception care is to reduce inflammation to ensure the egg and sperm are as healthy as possible.
When your body is under stress it directs energy away from all non-essential processes like digestion to reserve energy for a possible fight or flight situation. Chronic stress leads to sluggish digestion, which affects the body’s ability to breakdown and use nutrients in food and can lead to potential deficiencies over time. This is certainly not ideal when we want to ensure there are sufficient nutrients for hormone production, to nourish the maturing egg and build up nutrient reserves leading up to pregnancy.
Top 7 ways to reduce stress hormones affecting your fertility.
Unfortunately stress is pretty much unavoidable these days, so it’s really important to have ways to manage your stress and minimise its impact on your health and fertility. Find what works for you, but here are some ideas:
- Eat a balanced breakfast containing protein, healthy fats and unprocessed carbohydrates. Highly processed or sugary foods spike your blood sugar quickly. And what goes up must come down, resulting in a crash in blood sugar that leads to cravings, hunger and irritability. More importantly, to get your blood sugar back up your body releases cortisol, adding additional stress hormones to an already over-stressed system. Instead aim to eat balanced meals containing protein and healthy fats along with unrefined carbohydrates.
- Avoid caffeine on an empty stomach and keep intake to a minimum especially during stressful periods. Caffeine causes the release of the stress hormone adrenaline, meaning that second or third cup of coffee is contributing to even higher stress hormones in the body.
- Incorporate foods into your diet that support your body in times of stress. Leafy greens contain high levels of magnesium which is critical for coping with stress, while citrus fruits and berries are high in vitamin C which has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol. And you’ll be pleased to know, dark chocolate contains both magnesium and flavonoids (plant chemicals) which have relaxing properties too!
- Incorporate calming activities into your day. This will activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the fight and flight response) and help the body conserve energy, rest, restore and digest and absorb nutrients. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga and deep breathing exercises have been scientifically shown to increase GABA (the calming neurotransmitter) and reduce cortisol.
- Move your body. Exercise produces endorphins and the feel good hormone serotonin, which have an uplifting effect on your entire body and can reduce the negative effects of stress.
- Change your perception. Identify stressful situations or areas of your life and try to see them differently or just take the pressure off. Because your body doesn’t know the difference between a life threatening situation or being stressed about your long to-do list (perceived stressor), it responds the same way. So you can start to shift your body out of a constant state of stress just by thinking differently and not being unrealistic about what you can achieve each day. For example, what’s the worse that can happen if that washing doesn’t get done, or that phone call is made tomorrow? Will you lose your job if you don’t keep working after dinner tonight?
- Choose where your attention goes. It’s OK to unfollow social media accounts that trigger you, or stop watching the news if it makes you anxious. Keep your attention on things that make you feel calm and positive.
These are just some of the simple ways you can restore balance to your nervous system and make the most of the benefits that come with reducing stress. But everyone is different so pay attention to what makes you feel stressed and experiment with addressing these in different ways to find what works for you!