No Need to Stress: We’ve Got You Covered
The human body is essentially a culmination of cues signaling to ourselves whether we are in optimal health or not. A lot of these cues are meant to keep us healthy and surviving, however, due to an ever-evolving reality these cues can become imbalanced due to daily stresses that we all inevitably encounter. These cues are what we call hormones and they govern nearly every function in our body. One of these functions is fertility, and it is particularly subject to disarray from the imbalance of these hormones.
Lucky for you, we are addressing the 3 most common sneaky stressors that can inhibit your fertility. By the end of this blog post, you will know where these stressors may be sneaking into your life and how to reduce them in order to optimize your fertility.
What Is Stress?
For our distant ancestors, stress looked a lot different than today and in many ways we can be thankful for that. Life-or-death situations, like famine or being chased by a predator were not uncommon then, and therefore relied on the body’s fight-or-flight mode for survival. Even though we aren’t in these exact scenarios today, our fight-or-flight mode is still being activated on a daily (and even minute-by-minute) basis and for reasons you may not expect.
You have probably heard of the nervous system, maybe in a health or anatomy class way back when. But you likely didn’t learn how your nervous system is interconnected with your reproductive system.
Your nervous system is responsible for regulating your stress via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two modes: parasympathetic and sympathetic. To make it a little easier to understand how your nervous system impacts your fertility, I’ve come up with some nicknames: “welcome baby” mode (or parasympathetic) and “no place for baby” mode (or sympathetic).
Parasympathetic Or “Welcome Baby” Mode
You know the feeling when you have to quickly slam on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the car ahead of you who didn’t put on their turn signal? “Welcome baby” mode is activated only when the immediate stress response that allows your body to respond appropriately to avoid the accident ends. Once your brain senses that the emergency is over, this part of your parasympathetic mode tells the body to slow your quickened heart rate, decrease your adrenaline and blood pressure, and bring back blood flow to the internal and reproductive organs after it was shunted up to your brain and arms so that they could react quickly enough.
Parasympathetic mode, often referred to as the “rest and digest” system, is what allows your body’s daily operations like digestion, hormone balance, body temperature regulation, and reproduction to thrive.
This mode is a must-have to communicate to your body that you are not constantly in a state of emergency and it’s in a safe environment to create and bring a baby into. When your body can spend enough time in “welcome baby” mode, fertility hormones can better be produced and in the proper amounts, your period will have a better chance of being on time and pain-free, and sperm production (for men – obv) will be at its peak, creating the most conducive environment for your baby to be brought into existence.
Sympathetic “No Place For A Baby” Mode
Sympathetic mode, often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” system, quickly and automatically prepares the body for emergencies and life-or-death situations. Put yourself back into the almost rear-ending the car situation from above for a moment.
When your brain detects danger, your body responds by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, inhibiting digestion, stimulating adrenaline production, and shunting blood away from your internal and reproductive organs to your extremities in order to help you either fight or run away from the danger and (hopefully) survive the situation. We can be very thankful that our body can respond without us even having to think in times such as this!
Can you imagine how high your insurance policy would be if not??
The problem arises when your “no place for baby” stress response gets activated on a chronic, low-grade level for many hours a day week after week without getting shut off and the body gets stuck in “no place for a baby” mode. Think: Stop-and-go traffic on a daily commute that puts you in a pissy mood all-day long, back-to-back work deadlines with no end in sight, swiping through your social media feed and comparing yourself to everyone and their mom 24/7, even those “healthy” exercise and nutrition habits that you’ve been working so hard to implement can do it too if they aren’t right for your unique situation.
These may not seem like life-or-death, fight-or-flight situations to you, but unfortunately the brain and body perceives them as such and it may be keeping you locked in sympathetic dominance if you don’t do anything to stop it. Some people think that a high-stressed, “sleep-when-you’re-dead” lifestyle is synonymous with being a high performing, goal- oriented, and overachiever, which may be true… but can come at a significant cost to your health and fertility.
How Does Stress Affect Fertility?
When our nervous systems are constantly residing in the sympathetic “no place for place for baby” mode, this can take a toll on our overall health, but especially our fertility (An Y et al.). Your brain and your reproductive organs communicate through the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Gonadal (HPG) Axis. The HPG axis has an overwhelming impact on your endocrine (hormone) system, which includes the brain, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries, and testes and is directly impacted by stress.
What this means is that when the stress response is activated in your body, a rush of stress hormones, specifically norepinephrine and cortisol, is released which suppress your fertility hormones like estrogen and progesterone. When we are in a chronic state of stress, these hormones are constantly being released. And guess which of our bodily systems is the first to be shut down in favor of sending energy to the more vital systems like the heart and lungs? Yup, the reproductive system! (Hernandez-Medrano et al.)
Stress is the leading cause of disease in the body and can manifest in many different ways. High levels of stress hormones have been shown to negatively influence women’s ability to get pregnant. Studies have shown that women who experience depression and anxiety also struggle with infertility at high rates. It has also been shown that the more stressed out a woman is prior to attempting to get pregnant, the lower their pregnancy rates are. As you can see, stress wreaks havoc on our reproductive system.
If you want to test your stress levels, getting a four or six point salivary cortisol from your doctor is a great place to start. Of course, that’s not the only test you can do. I go through my favorite test to identify how stress may be impacting your fertility here.
Common Forms of Stress
Who are we kidding? There is no avoiding stress completely, but when it comes to fertility it is important to monitor our levels of stress and understand how many different stressors are in our lives. Stress can infiltrate our day to day in the form of daily tasks, nutrition, and environmental factors.
- Daily Tasks
As we all know, life can get stressful. There are so many tasks on our plates and things for us to juggle, keeping us locked in “no place for baby” mode. Balancing your responsibilities at work, paying bills, being constantly available via text, email, social platforms, making sure you get to the gym regularly, and staying on top of housework are all things we need to keep up with and yet the most important task of them all gets pushed off: self care. When our plates are this full, it leaves little time to really take a deep breath and find a sense of calmness within our busy lives.
So, it is important to implement techniques that allow the body to switch from the “no place for baby” mode into the “welcome baby” mode. Some ways to do this are deep belly breaths with longer exhales than inhales, spending time in nature, yoga, and meditation.
Another way we chronically stress out our bodies is by under-fueling them. We live in a world that is perpetually throwing different diets and beauty standards our way, instilling this idea that our body’s purpose in life is to look a certain way, and thus we prioritize aesthetics over functionality. This ends up convincing us to value beauty standards over health, and yet what we fail to realize is that this forces us to give up the most beautiful parts of ourselves: the ability to create.
As women, we are life creators and how could we ever expect to create life (via a baby or in our own selves) without filling ourselves up with life force, with energy. So instead of allowing these unrealistic, toxic beauty standards to continue poisoning us into restriction, we should start abundantly fueling ourselves the way nature intended.
In fact, reduced macro and micro nutrient intake is directly correlated with a reduction in reproductive performance in women. This is because when we are not eating enough, we are communicating to our bodies that we are in a famine and our bodies start to shut down all processes that are not necessary for survival of our own bodies. So it is important to ensure that we are fueling ourselves with all the amazing nutrients the earth has gifted to us while also ensuring to supplement with various minerals that have been depleted from our soils.
One such incredible nutrient is magnesium, which is an important mineral when it comes to stress. When we are in stressful situations, our body burns through our magnesium stores as a way of supporting itself, and yet low magnesium can also cause anxiety and stress within the body. So by supplementing and ensuring we are getting adequate amounts of magnesium we are able to ensure a healthy stress response cycle in our bodies without damaging our adrenals.
On the topic of supplementing, there are also many herbs and mushrooms that act as adaptogens which help support our adrenal glands (which regulate our stress hormones) and help our bodies adapt to stressful situations. Some of the most beneficial in regards to fertility are ashwagandha, maca, reishi, and cordyceps. To properly fuel your fertility, it is critical to eat enough and supplement with proper herbs and minerals to support a healthy stress response.
- Environmental Stressors
Lastly, even when we feel we have a good handle on the stressors in our lives, the sneakiest stressors of all can still be affecting your hormones, and these are environmental stressors.
Our modern landscapes are full of substances and chemicals that were unknown to our bodies not too long ago, and our biology has yet to have a firm chance on developing strong defense mechanisms to the abundance of substances we come into contact with everyday. Check out this excerpt from my Fueling Fertility course:
“At its current pace, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could take decades to review the 80,000 chemicals currently on the market, and there are an additional 2,000 added every year according to Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Environmental Working Group analyzed the umbilical cord blood of newborns just a few hours after being born and found that 287 environmental chemicals were detectable in the babies’ blood, all “downloaded” through mom’s blood during pregnancy.”
From detergents to pesticides to plastics to fragrances, our lives are filled with a lot of foreign chemicals that have the capacity to disrupt our endocrine system. The chemicals within fragrances found in our soaps, perfumes, and detergents have been shown to disrupt our hormonal balance within our bodies and has led to a decrease in fertility in women (Green et al.). This is also true for plastics. Substances such as BPA found in plastics can accumulate within humans and high levels of this substance has been shown to cause infertility in women.
Due to the nature of our new reality, it is important to try and decrease these substances in our lives as much as we can. This looks like storing food in glass containers rather than plastic ones and buying local produce as much as possible to avoid plastic wrapping, chemicals from transport, and pesticides that may have been sprayed onto them. This also looks like switching our personal care items to ones that are synthetic fragrance-free and as natural as possible. Another way to reduce their effects on the body is to regularly sweat in order to help our body’s elimination pathways clear out these accumulated toxins from our pores. This can be in the form of exercise, epsom salt baths, and saunas. Making these switches will help decrease the toll these chemicals take on your body, and help to boost your body’s ability to get pregnant.
All in all, stress definitely takes a toll on the body. However, there are so many ways that we can support our bodies during times of stress that allow them to respond to these stressful situations in a less damaging way. Ensuring we are implementing mindfulness techniques such as breathwork, time in nature, yoga, and meditation is one important way to reduce stress on the body. Another way is making sure we are eating enough nutrients to fuel our bodies throughout its many, many processes over the course of the day. Lastly, we should make sure to stay away from as many endocrine disruptors as we can and help our body rid ourselves of these toxins as much as we can.
The stress reduction techniques listed above are in no way an exhaustive list of “fertility-friendly” forms of exercise. What works for your fertility and your hormones, and what relieves your stress might be different from someone else’s. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise or fertility. In my Fueling Fertility Tribe, you are able to find out if you are indeed in “no place for a baby” mode and how to get out of it.
Schedule your free discovery call today to talk about your story, struggles, and goals. That’s it. Just a chance to connect and see how I can be of service to you.
Affiliate Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links which means, to no extra cost to you, I would make a small fee if you use them.
(1) An Y, Wang Z, Ji H, Zhang Y, Wu K. Pituitary-adrenal and sympathetic nervous system responses to psychiatric disorders in women undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment. Fertil Steril. 2011;96(2):404-408. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2011.05.092
(2) Green MP, Harvey AJ, Finger BJ, Tarulli GA. Endocrine disrupting chemicals: Impacts on human fertility and fecundity during the peri-conception period. Environ Res. 2021;194:110694. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2020.110694
(3) Hernandez-Medrano, J. H., Campbell, B. K., & Webb, R. (n.d.). Nutritional inﬂuences on folliculogenesis. Online Library. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1111/j.1439-0531.2012.02086.
(4) Rooney KL, Domar AD. The relationship between stress and infertility. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2018;20(1):41-47. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2018.20.1/klrooney