The Effects of Stress on Your Hormones - Why Chronic Stress is the Enemy When TTC
We’ve all heard it before and we know it’s true, chronic stress is bad for our health. It can lead to all kinds of health problems including insomnia, obesity, thyroid problems, mental health problems, and cardiovascular disease just to name a few.1, 2, 3
In this blog post, we’re going to talk about how stress can negatively affect your chances of conceiving and what you can do about it.
It’s a Hormone Thing
Firstly, let’s get one thing straight. Stress is controlled by hormones, just like reproductive health, digestion, weight management, blood glucose, and everything else. Hormones are simply chemical messengers that communicate with body tissues on behalf of the brain. That’s it.
But, things get a little more emotional when we start talking about our reproductive hormones. Those particular chemical messengers do seem to impact our emotions a bit more, even when subfertility/infertility isn’t a problem. This is why we call teens “hormonal” when they act impulsively, aggressively, or emotionally. We assume that these behaviors and feelings are being driven by the newly formed cascades of sex hormones coursing through their developing bodies. And they very often are.
But, in order to keep things scientifically accurate, and to make sure readers understand that every state of being is a hormonal one, we will be sure to differentiate between sex hormones and other hormones as we discuss the impact stress can have on our endocrine (hormone) system.
Check out this video to learn about the endocrine system in less than 5 minutes!
Tell Me About My Sex Hormones Then
Our sex hormones are often one of the first systems to get wacky when dealing with chronic stress. This is for two reasons, firstly our reproductive system is of no use during a fight or flight situation, so the body powers it down during stress. And secondly, in the female body, our sex hormones are very closely tied to our stress hormones, physically speaking.
You see, stress affects the body through the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis) and the system that controls a woman’s reproductive hormones is the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Ovarian Axis (HPO Axis).4 Now you may have guessed, based on the names of each axis, that these two systems are very close to each other.
Both systems are working side by side all the time, so when you get stressed and it throws off the HPA Axis, it will inevitably affect the HPO Axis as well.4
Why does one affect the other you may ask? Well, not only are the two systems closely tied, but let’s not forget that you are just one person, one being. This means that when you’re stressed out, all of your body is impacted, not just your HPA Axis.4
Because of this, when you experience chronic stress it can affect your fertility directly, as in messing with your HPO Axis, or it can affect it indirectly by causing hormonal changes that lower your sex drive, increase weight gain, and antagonize blood glucose imbalances.1,5 Stress can also impact your pain levels by causing increased muscle tension, pain, and headaches.6
This is not the recipe for baby-making magic.
What About Dudes?
Men don’t get a free pass on stress and fertility just because they don’t have ovaries. When the body is under stress, it increases the amount of cortisol in the blood, and this can affect a wide variety of body systems in both men and women. But, in men, it can negatively affect their reproductive health, just like the wacky HPO Axis affects female fertility.
High cortisol levels from chronic stress can lead to decreased sperm count, lowered sperm motility, altered sperm morphology, and even impotence.1 It’s pretty hard to conceive a baby when your sperm are slow, wonky, and low in numbers.
And these wonky sperm are just one of the effects of chronic stress. Men can also experience all the non-sex hormone related effects of stress such as low sex drive, weight gain, poor blood glucose control, etc.
So, if both parties trying to make a baby are stressed out, there’s a lot going against them!
Check out this illustration of the many ways that stress can impact the body:
Now Hear This!
Before we continue, ladies and gentlemen, please hear us loud and clear. If you are struggling with infertility related to stress, whether that’s anovulation or wonky sperm, it does not have anything to do with how good a partner you are, or how good a parent you will be. You are not less womanly, less manly, or less anything else just because your body is under a lot of stress. So, let’s leave the blame game on the shelf and continue in a scientific, empathetic manner that leaves plenty of room for good sense and kind words.
But Why Does Stress Turn Off My Baby-Maker?
When you’re in a stressful situation that is short-lasting, cortisol gives your body a surge of glucose to provide energy for running, fighting, etc. But, over time, if cortisol levels don’t go down, it can have the opposite effect. Your body will start storing energy rather than using it.
In layman's terms, chronically high cortisol levels lower your metabolism. That is to say, your body reduces certain calorie-burning processes in order to save up energy to fight the stressors. These processes include things like your immune system, digestion, growth and development, and reproduction.3 This can lead to low energy levels, weight gain, cravings, and infertility. Lame.
And It’s Not Just Physical
Unsurprisingly, chronic stress also impacts our mental health. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause more anxiety, depression, and fearfulness. It can also alter moods and motivation.3
If you have been experiencing a lot of stressors, even good ones like promotions, and marriage, this can cause some of these negative emotional responses. This is because big events are translated by the body as stress, and chronic stress causes chronically high cortisol, which can have these negative emotional effects in the body. 3, 4
What Do I Do?
First, just stop for a moment now and breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Let go of some of that angst before you continue reading.
Now, let’s start with the obvious. There is no escaping stress. Humans are always going to encounter stress in their lives, no matter how Zen their lifestyle is. The key is to manage stress well and to limit stressors where possible.
Way to Be Vague. What Stressors?
As mentioned above, a stressor is anything that disrupts the body’s attempt to maintain homeostasis, or its balanced state. Homeostasis is the way our bodies want to live, but stressors are constantly trying to pull the body out of this homeostatic balance and into a stress state.
Stressors can be emotional, physical, chemical, or any combination thereof. So stressors can include foods, hygiene products, cleaning products, injuries, nutritional deficiencies, relationships, promotions, medications, smells, anxieties, or pretty much anything else you can think of.
If too many of these things happen at once, and your body thinks things are just too far away from normal, it will react with a stress response.
Everyone responds differently to different stressors and everyone’s ability to cope with stress while remaining in homeostasis is different as well. But, once a person has too many stressors for their individual self to handle, it can spill over and create chronic stress until the overflow stops and homeostasis can resume.
Check out the following quizzes to see what your stress levels are:
Fine, I’ll Just Get Rid of All My Stress Until We’re Pregnant
Obviously we cannot, and should not, try to eliminate stress in our lives. That would be futile, and were you to succeed, it would likely deprive you of many meaningful, albeit stressful, parts of your life such as relationships, career, delicious foods, and much, much more!
Instead, we should try and identify sources of stress that are controllable and that aren’t contributing to our lives in a meaningful way, so that we can eliminate them.
This will be different for every person. It could be certain cleaning chemicals, dairy products, an old friendship/relationship, spending habits, or really anything. If you notice something makes you feel sick or stressed, and that something isn’t contributing to your life, it might be a good time to part ways with it.
I’ve Cut All I Can, Now What?
If you want to help your body cope better with stressors, you can try adding de-stressing elements to your life such as regular exercise, mediation, family time, time spent in nature, healthy eating patterns, and other holistic practices that help your body and brain to stay happy and thriving.
So, if you're a gym rat with achy joints from attending too many CrossFit sessions, then take a break from CrossFit and try yoga. If you’re a junk food junkie who loves fast food, take a break from burgers and fries to have a salad or a bowl of soup with whole grain bread. If you’re a workaholic, then clock out on time and go have dinner with friends or family.
You get the idea. Helping your body find balance is really what we’re getting at here.
The Long and Short of It
Stress is inevitable, but being stressed out doesn’t have to be. Everyone responds differently to different stressors and everyone can handle different amounts of stress based on their genetics, personality, environment, etc.
Reducing stress in our lives can be very important for maintaining good health, and of course, for reproduction. So, if you’re struggling with infertility and you’re under a lot of stress, you might need to reduce your stress before your body will agree to make babies.
Reducing stress can be as simple as improving your diet or as complex as overhauling your career. Only you can decide when and how to address the stressors in your life.
Are stress and infertility problems for you? Has this information helped you to know how to better cope with stress so you can move forward? Find us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok to let us know your thoughts!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods, is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such as a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional, to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3079864/. Published January 2011. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- Staff HHP. Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response. Published July 6, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037. Published July 8, 2021. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- Crawford N. Stress, fertility, and hormones: Does stress impact your fertility? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ab4xt9Rdmws. Published October 25, 2021. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- Staff IFM. Chronic stress and hormone disruption: IFM. The Institute for Functional Medicine. https://www.ifm.org/news-insights/atp-chronic-stress-and-hormone-disruption/. Published July 27, 2022. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- Pietrangelo A. The effects of stress on your body. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body. Published March 29, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2022.