Stress comes in many forms. It may be due to internal unhealthy beliefs and emotions that lead to physiological responses and upset the natural balance of the body; external factors such as weight, nutrition, general health, alcohol, smoking and exercise; environmental stressors such as chemicals and toxins (such as pesticides, fertilisers and cosmetic ingredients), noise and pollution, infection or EMFs (electro-magnetic fields); or physiological factors such as pain, trauma or lack of sleep. Reducing stress levels as much as possible can have a huge impact on fertility and hormonal balance.
How does stress affect fertility?
Stress affects fertility in numerous ways. Here are a few of the main reasons:
1. During periods of stress, adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormones) are released, which (along with many other effects) cause blood to be directed away from the vital organs. After prolonged stress, the sympathetic nervous system can become hyper-stimulated and send less blood to the uterus and ovaries, thereby impairing their optimal functioning¹. Blood carries nutrients and hormones to the cells of the body and good circulation is therefore vital for a healthy reproductive system. Massage to the lower abdomen and uterus in women brings fresh blood to the area, thereby supporting a healthy and fertile state.
2. Stress also affects areas of the brain that govern the endocrine (hormonal) system. The hypothalamus is a small gland at the base of the brain that communicates with the pituitary gland to control the flow of both stress and sex hormones. Stress can affect the functioning of the hypothalamus and therefore disrupt the hormonal balance.
3. Research has shown that the presence of excess cortisol causes the release of an inhibiting hormone, which reduces the production of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH)². These hormones are vital for the release of an egg and for embryo implantation. Cortisol is also known to decrease the immune system, suppress the digestive and reproductive systems, heighten sugar uptake and reduce thyroid function. The reproductive system is the only body system that is expendable, i.e. under extreme or prolonged stress, the cycle will ‘shut down’.
How does what we Believe Affect Fertility?
“Beliefs affect your biology. When we have a thought or a feeling or an emotion then, in our brains, we make a set of chemicals known as neuropeptides. There are receptors to these chemical messengers not only in brain cells but also in other parts of our body, for example in the cells of the immune system, which protect us from cancer and infectious disease and degenerative disorders”³.
Essentially every thought, feeling and emotion causes a physiological response in the body. Take some time to close your eyes and imagine the smell, taste and texture of your favourite food. You will notice responses in your body such as your taste buds becoming more alert, your mouth watering or your tummy grumbling. This is just one example of how simply having a thought can cause physiological changes to your body.
Similarly, many studies have demonstrated physical changes that have resulted from several weeks of mental rehearsal for e.g. a sporting or musical activity, similar to those produced after physically carrying out these activities4.
Unhealthy thoughts caused by unhealthy beliefs and stress and feelings such as anxiety therefore directly impact the systems and organs of the body, including the reproductive system. Practising healthy beliefs, resulting in healthy thinking and emotions can bring balance back to the body’s hormonal system, thus enhancing fertility.
From these facts, we can see some of the main ways in which stress and negative thought patterns can directly influence hormonal balance and fertility. Infertility itself, alongside a busy life, a stressful job and medical tests and treatments can cause heightened stress and anxiety and can result in a vicious cycle. Women experiencing infertility are also more likely to suffer from heightened depression and anxiety symptoms5 and depressive symptoms have been associated with decreased fertility and reduced success of infertility treatment6.
What can be Done to Help?
There is good evidence that infertility can cause stress and stress can cause infertility. We need to enhance relaxation and reduce stress levels to break this cycle. People often feel that they have no control over their situation and that it is ‘out of their hands’. While a desired outcome cannot be guaranteed, there are many things you can do to optimise your chances of success. Preparation for natural or assisted conception through continued support, practising healthy beliefs and bodywork, can work in this way.
It is well known that massage and reflexology improve relaxation and enhance wellbeing and we have seen here how doing this can positively influence the organs and systems of the body, including the reproductive system. In addition, talking through your concerns with a knowledgeable and experienced practitioner, setting some goals about what you would like to achieve, addressing unhealthy thought patterns and emotions and learning simple self-help techniques can help you to gain perspective and a sense of control over your situation