Does Stress Affect Our Chance Of Having Babies? ©

By Ann Vlass Natural Fertility Specialist & Medical Research Scientist B.Sc. (Hons) B.HSc. (Nat.)., Adv. Dip. Nut., Adv. Dip. Herb. Med. Post Grad. NFM.

Modern living is affecting our natural body rhythms

The majority of investigations into the interaction between stress response and infertility demonstrate that ‘infertility causes stress', but complex variations in the chronic stress response have made it difficult to assess the impact stress has on fertility. This is why you may have discrepancies between western medical doctors and natural healthcare practitioners in response to this question. However, it is clearly evident to most of us that stress does affect our health!

Our circadian or natural sleep-wake cycle rhythms delicately balance our reproductive hormones. This is due to our biological clock being intimately linked to the same hormones that trigger ovulation in women and sperm maturation in men. Therefore both female and male fertility is equally affected by changes to natural body rhythms. In particular, men need to sleep by at least 10.30pm to release human growth hormone which releases the male hormone testosterone. If this is not released it can have major consequences on sperm production and the health of the male. So sleeping when the sun goes down and rising with the sun works best at keeping our body rhythms in balance and avoiding stress to the circadian cycles. Even our eating patterns have shifted to later in the evening, leaving very little opportunity for our vital detoxification processes to work optimally. Detoxification processes in the liver particularly, are needed to metabolise reproductive hormones. And even worse, if we are eating when stressed, our digestion has not released the correct digestive fluids to help breakdown of food contents, and this leads to an even more stressed body. We no longer have "quiet" times to slow down and reflect; to reconnect our mind and bodies. We now live in a melting pot of information overload and "techno-burden" where our brains are highly wired, more than ever before in human evolution. This has created a stressful lifestyle and a longer term stress response in the body that impacts us in many ways biochemically. Thyroid hormone signaling, stress and sex hormones, adrenal and the brain (HPA) axis responses are re- regulated and the dynamic ‘interplay' within endocrine system signaling pathway is altered. To put this simply, we are destroying the dynamic talk between our brain and all the important hormonal signaling responses that are needed for reducing stress and promoting fertility. Remember, our bodies are designed to keep us alive foremost. So if you we are "stressed out", our body will keep producing the stress hormones which keep us even more "wound up". It is a viscous cycle, and difficult to turn off.

Stress Pathways are complex, reciprocal, and differential.

‘Stress' involves the complex reciprocal and differential reactions of the brain and adrenal-stress axis, and recent models contemplate many more interactions with other hormonal and neurobiological systems. Stress is not always emotional or mentally induced, but instead could indicate poor blood sugar control, digestive inflammation, chronic infections, poor diet and environmental toxins.

Long-term stress burdens the body.

Long-term, unrelenting stress results in what is called "allostatic overload", loss of adrenal gland reserve, and an associated decrease in the production of stress hormones. This is a crash and burn scenario which has major consequences on fertility and instability of important physiological systems. This cascade is exaggerated by insufficient supply of vitamin C, certain B vitamins and Zinc, nutrients essential to proper adrenal function, either by poor diet, or by a shift in the acid/alkaline balance of the body. Vitamin C, B group vitamins such as pantothenic acid (B5), and magnesium have shown to support adrenal function. Like magnesium, B5 is important for energy production. It is converted into acetyl CoA, a substance critical to the conversion of glucose into energy. Its requirements are higher in the adrenal glands because so much energy is needed to produce adrenal hormones. The combination of pantothenic acid with magnesium, and vitamin C increases energy production and nourishes the adrenal glands. Other B group vitamins such as niacin and B6 are vital to form molecular structures of certain dependant coenzymes critical for several steps in the adrenal cascade. Interestingly, the adrenal glands contain the highest amount of vitamin C in the body. Vitamin C may protect against the toxic effects of excessive stress hormone cortisol release.

How long term stress affects fertility- a biochemical understanding.

Excess cortisol release in women during chronic stress produces excessive prolactin secretion, which further affects important fertility hormone signalling- FSH decreases and LH increases, androgen (male hormone) production from the adrenals themselves increases, and levels of progesterone and oestrogen reduces. Progesterone to oestrogen ratio can also shift producing oestrogen dominance. Conversely, impaired cortisol inhibition feedback may cause over secretion of testosterone, progesterone and/or oestrogen, all of which can lead to menstrual disorders.

Increased cortisol levels also reduce our immunity and possibly autoimmune disorders such as endometriosis, which is a major contributor to female infertility. Cortisol inhibits NK cell activity (Chrousos et al., 2000). Thus, the increase of prolactin and cortisol secretion and the simultaneous reduction of NK cell activity in women with endometriosis are strong clues of a probable association between endometriosis and stress (Oosterlynck et al., 1991).

Recent studies have also offered data as to how stress may reduce sperm quality and motility. Stress causes loss of glutathione and free sulphydryl content of seminal plasma (Eskiocak et al., 2005) and the inhibition of the conversion of androstenedione into testosterone in Leydig cells on account of higher ACTH and cortisol levels (Klimek et al., 2005).

Low thyroid output signals increased cortisol production from the adrenal glands. Over compensation of the adrenal output triggers a thyroid/adrenal crisis where the thyroid hormone 5'- deiodinase enzymes cannot convert T4 into active T3 and receptors required for T3 uptake is degraded.

Cortisol increases blood sugar (glucose) and breaks down proteins and fats to help mobilize energy (Gianoulakis, 1998). As cortisol raises blood sugar, weight begins to distribute as the classic (visceral) "apple shape body" fat. This is often also associated with oestrogen dominance and hyperinsulinaemia. Exaggerated GnRH pulsatility results in hypersecretion of LH, which has effects both on ovarian androgen production and oocyte development, and is a factor inherent in PCOS (Balen, 2004). This is how both weight and sugar imbalance can affect fertility in women. Men also have the problem of producing too much oestrogen and less testosterone so their sperm production is affected.

Medical Science agrees that lifestyle and nutrition can promote fertility.

Some studies have shown a staggering 80% success rate in couples with "unexplained infertility" when they incorporate lifestyle & nutrition changes. With potential such as this, it is mind boggling that couples do not try this prior to expensive, invasive and stressful IVF. Many studies show a drop of over 40% in sperm counts since 1940 which may be a major reason why an estimated 1 in 6 couples have difficulty conceiving. Many attribute the lowered fertility to the rampant use of chemical compounds in our modern environment as well as our overloaded stressful lifestyles out of touch with the natural rhythms of nature. In summary, keep sleep and wake times consistent, and in accordance to natural rhythms of nature. Eat early in the evening, eat and chew well, keep your weight in a healthy range, exercise regularly and avoid foods that are laden with sugar. Have time to rest and play. Slow down, take time to reflect and enjoy your quiet moments. Understand the way you react to a stressful situation, and be conscious how that stress affects your body and chance of making babies.


ACTH adrenocorticotropic hormone CFR corticotrophin releasing factor HPA hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal HPG hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal SAM sympathetic-adrenal-medullar system DHEA dehydroepiandrosterone DHEA-S dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate GnRH gonadotrophin releasing hormone LH lutenising hormone FSH follicle stimulating hormone PCOS polycystic ovary syndrome T4 thyroxine T3 tri-iodothyronine LHRH Luteinising Hormone Releasing Hormone