Although we may not have the same stressors and worries as our ancestors, modern-day life is full of complex challenges, and stress seems to plague modern-day society now more than ever. Stress is more than a terrible feeling that makes us want to bury our heads in the sand — it is a physical and emotional response that can have a range of effects on your body.
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The biological instincts and the desire to conceive can make trying to conceive one of the most stressful periods of a couple’s life. Not knowing whether they can give birth to children of their own or weighing up the expensive range of fertility treatments means that the stress hormone cortisol can be coursing through those trying to conceive. Therefore, in this article, we examine whether cortisol can affect your ability to conceive.
What Is Cortisol?
When under severe stress, the human body produces the steroid hormone cortisol. This “stress hormone” is secreted by the adrenal gland and causes your blood pressure and heart rate to increase in a response known as the fight or flight response. “Fight or flight” is usually triggered when you are confronted with what the body believes is a severe, life-threatening danger or threat. This response is instantaneous and should help you react and deal with any major stressor.
Thankfully most of us rarely experience these extreme survival responses. However, that doesn’t mean that cortisol is not helpful in our everyday lives. We all secrete cortisol throughout the day, with small amounts released and used to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Why Does Stress Impact Fertility?
The body’s stress response is essentially there to help us survive the most extreme threats and help us escape from the dangers that our primitive ancestors used to face. This stress response instantly produces elevated cortisol levels, while also redirecting all the body’s resources to survive the imminent danger.
During these moments of high stress, other bodily processes and functions such as conceiving become lesson important, and they are essentially put on the back burner. This process is described by reproductive endocrinologist, Dr. Jane Frederick, MD, “Imagine if you’re trying to run away from a tiger. Your body doesn’t want you to be menstruating or ovulating—it wants to save all your hormones to keep the cortisol functioning so you can run faster”.
Even though the stressors might be different, many of us experience elevated stress levels due to our careers or responsibilities. This constant stress level can negatively impact a fertile adult’s ability to conceive a child.
How Does Stress Impact Fertility?
When you experience constantly elevated stress levels, the body continuously produces high levels of cortisol. This cortisol essentially reduces the secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When GnRH levels are low, the area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is often referred to as the hormone control centre, will struggle to send the required signals to the pituitary gland. If these signals do not reach the pituitary gland, the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) will not be released. LH and FSH are needed to stimulate the ovaries into ovulation.
If by chance, the individual’s body can produce the levels of FSH and LH required to initiate ovulation, then the cortisol will also act as a defence mechanism by blocking the ovary from receiving it. Unfortunately, without the ability to ovulate, the chances of conceiving are zero, and therefore, stress is a hugely damaging factor to those trying to conceive.
Although one stressful day at the office is unlikely to have any effect on your chances of conceiving, a period of sustained stress caused by any number of factors can lead to short-term infertility.
Stress is a significant problem in the 21st century, and the physical and emotional impacts it can have on our bodies and minds are vast. Therefore, it is essential to check your stress levels, which you can do with easy-to-use cortisol testing. Once you better understand your body’s cortisol levels, you can work on reducing your stress with a range of stress-relieving techniques. With this approach, you should give yourself the best chance to conceive and hopefully learn to lead a more stress-free existence.