I don’t think stress ever came up more than when my husband and I were trying to conceive.
“Relax, it will happen!”
For a great many of you reading this on the TTC or “trying to conceive” journey, your eyes just twitched. I have to be honest, it hurt a little to type. Out of all the phrases I hated hearing while TTC, that was at the top of the list.
The problem is that as much as we hate it, conventional wisdom has it right:
Stress impacts fertility.
It’s not something we can argue. We have thousands of years of doctors and sages corroborating all of the studies we’ve done on the subject in the past century. The difference is now we know why – hormones.
A glucocorticoid is a type of steroid hormone called a “corticosteroid.” One common glucocorticoid you have probably heard of is “cortisol”. Glucocorticoids help our body respond to threats – we burn fat better, we react more strongly, we manage our inflammatory responses better and our blood pressure changes.
But when we’re in survival mode, our body isn’t prioritizing reproduction. Glucocorticoids interfere with reproduction in many ways. They decrease gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) in the hypothalamus. They decrease luteinizing hormones (LH) and follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) in the pituitary gland. And they directly interfere with the production of sperm and the release of eggs.
A prospective cohort study published in Human Reproduction found that “Higher levels of stress as measured by salivary alpha-amylase are associated with a longer time-to-pregnancy (TTP) and an increased risk of infertility.”
The negative impact of stress doesn’t stop with fertility issues, either. If conception occurs, increased glucocorticoids resulting from maternal stress can lead to permanent and lifelong changes in the stress feedback loops of any children.
You have to change your hormones. To change your hormones, you need to change your feedback loops. Changing your stress/rest feedback loops is a matter of changing your habits.
Making lifestyle changes
If you are having fertility issues, you need to make some lifestyle changes to help manage your stress.
This is important for you, your partner and your future child.
You probably hear this from me a lot, and goodness knows the people in my facebook challenge have been hearing this too:
You can’t pour from an empty cup.
And you can’t stretch yourself thin trying to do and be all the things and then ask your already taxed Kidney qi to make room for a baby too. It’s too busy keeping you going.
The first important practice you can add is yoga.
Yoga is an effective, impactful practice that has positive effects on both your fertility and your well-being.
A study published in the European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology found that women who participated in a 3 month hatha yoga program while undergoing IVF reported reduced stress.
Another study found that “Anxiety, depression and fertility-specific quality of life showed improvement over time in association with participation in a 6-week Yoga programme in women awaiting their treatment with IVF.”
I personally found great benefit from the yoga program from Drs. Brandon Horn and Wendy Yu. They combine yoga, meditation, visualization and acupressure to work with the four stages of your cycle to reduce your stress and help balance your hormones.
Having a daily yoga practice changed my entire mindset. I was calmer and more present. It’s too easy to get spun up about fertility issues and trying to conceive. Being able to consciously let it go was a godsend.
A major part of that mindset shift was the meditation and visualization that Horn and Yu include in the DVD.
This leads us to the second important practice to to introduce to your self-care routine: meditation.
A study published in Fertility and Sterility found that a mindfulness based program developed specifically for infertility helped women (and would likely help men) deal with the negative emotions surrounding fertility issues.
Let’s be clear:
Meditation doesn’t get you pregnant. Meditation helps you manage the negative emotions around conception delays and can help lower your stress levels.
It seems counter-intuitive, but being mindful of your negative emotions takes away their power. One of my favorite books ever is called ‘The Happiness Trap’ and is about this specific thing. Learning to deal with your emotions starts with acknowledging that they exist. Mindfulness meditation helps with that.
The meditations involved in the “Restoring Fertility” DVD are more visualizations: visualizations of a healthy and effective ovulation, creating a safe and warm home for your future baby, implantation, etc. This may seem woowoo and out there but there is some science to this.
A study published in Neuropsychologia in 2004 found that merely thinking of exercising muscles activated them and increased their strength. While there haven’t been any studies on the impact of visualization on fertility, who is to say the impact visualization has on the nervous and musculoskeletal system can’t also affect the endocrine system?
3. Take a break
A third way to positively impact the stress in your life is to take a break from the rigors of trying to conceive.
We have all heard the apocryphal stories of women conceiving after an adoption has been finalized. I can count three people I know personally who got pregnant within 2 months of “giving up.” Letting go of controlling the process can be beneficial for men and women whose fertility is impacted by liver qi stagnation (link to blog post) or stress.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in BBT charts, temping, timing intercourse, OPKs and all of the acronymed rigamarole that we forget that we are trying to make a family. We get so caught up in the data that we lose the connection with our partner.
Timed intercourse isn’t as fun, and the pressure to perform for both partners is daunting. That pressure and the loss of connection is a stressor in and of itself. We started to feel isolated in a process that used to be about taking the love between two people and creating three.
4. OR Go off the deep end
Conversely, the fourth way to positively impact the stress surrounding fertility is to take the reigns and dive deeply into the fertility world.
For me, I’m type A. Not charting would be more stressful than charting. I like data. I like HPT progressions. I like seeing my crosshairs pop up on Fertility Friend. Give me the numbers.
For some people feeling that measure of control can help bring the stress down a notch. It’s about what works for you, not about what works for others.
The fifth way you can positively impact stress and your fertility is….acupuncture!
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, researchers found that acupuncture reduced the perception of stress for up to three months following a course of treatment. So even if you were to do one course of treatment, 8 treatments on average, you would see benefit for the following three months.
An interesting pattern I’ve noticed with fertility patients is that even though on the surface we are treating them to regulate their reproductive cycle, at a deeper level we are actually treating stress and anxiety. It always seems to come back to stress.
So, yes, you do need to relax
But go easy on yourself. Most people can’t “just relax.” That’s why it’s so frustrating to be told to do so. Relaxation is a skill that must be developed and practiced. You’ll have to play around with it to find out what works for you.
Find time to read a book. Meditate. Cook. Buy a yoga DVD and do some visualizations. Shape a self-care plan that fits you.
Make relaxation part of your lifestyle, and no matter what happens, you’ll be better for it.
Relax with community acupuncture
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and Links
Preconception stress increases the risk of infertility: results from a couple-based prospective cohort study—the LIFE study
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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