We’ve all read the headlines that tell us stress plays a part in most health conditions, and that chronic stress can cause everything from hair loss to heart attacks. But personally I never really gave stress a second thought - I knew I was naturally a ‘stressy’ person, but I thought I had it well under control. It wasn’t until I was told I had to reduce stress for the sake of my health and fertility that I realised how stressed I was, and how much focus it takes to really truly manage it.
When I think of stress I think of work; the pressure of deadlines, trying to juggle multiple projects, never getting to the end (or sometimes even the start) of your to do list because the emails just keep coming. This type of stress is quite recognisable - it’s that feeling of being overwhelmed and frazzled.
The most stressful times in our lives are times of change - planning a wedding, having children, moving towns (or just moving house), changing jobs, divorce and the death of loved ones. These are all very obvious. But it’s the less obvious stressors like over exercising, not getting enough sleep and those niggling worries at the back of your mind that cause the long term chronic stress that can effect your physical and mental health.
My stress identified itself when I met my future husband and I decided to come off the contraceptive pill to prepare my body for having a baby sometime in the near future. For 12 months post pill I waited patiently for my natural cycle to kick in, but nothing. By this time we had gotten engaged and were 6 months out from the wedding. I started to worry - where is my period?
I saw an endocrinologist who diagnosed Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. In a nutshell, this is when the hypothalamus stops telling the pituitary gland to produce the hormones that tell the ovaries to produce the sex hormones that regulate your cycle. And why was my hypothalamus not working? Stress.I assured her that my stress was manageable, but on paper it was a different story. I had been covering my bosses maternity leave for the past 6 months, my fiancé had just moved to another country (I was to join him in 6 months time), I was planning our wedding, exercising like a mad woman to fit into my wedding dress, trying to sell our house, and contemplating the move to Asia. Eek!
So here’s the science-y explanation for how stress can effect your menstrual cycle.
A short term stress response, like when the traffic backs up quickly and you almost tail end the car in front, produces an immediate spike in adrenaline - your heart races, your hands shake and it takes you are few minutes to get your composure. This adrenaline surge causes your nervous system to switch over to the ’fight or flight’ mode, which historically was the response that gave us the ability to out run danger. The opposite mode is ‘rest and digest’, or as a smart lady once told me, it’s the ‘rest, digest and reproduce’ mode - but we’ll get to that soon.
In the case of long term, or chronic stress i.e. money worries, being over-worked, insomnia; the hormone cortisol is produced. Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone, and it’s the one that does the most damage. When cortisol is continuously elevated it causes the body to shut down the non-essential functions, like reproduction. It can also effect your immune system, increase your blood pressure and make you put on weight. My blood test showed raised cortisol, and on the flip side, my reproductive system was having a sleep.
Important to note that in some cases low cortisol can be a result of chronic stress. This happens when your adrenal glands (who produce the cortisol) can’t keep up, so they give up.
The remedy sounded simple enough; stop exercising (this is a form of stress on the body), eat more food (dieting is another physical stress), get a low stress job when we move to Asia (anyone need a receptionist?) and chill. out. My endocrinologist predicted that within 6 months my AWOL cycle would be back in action.
Since focusing on stress management I’ve learned a whole lot more about how stress effects fertility. You may have a regular cycle, but if your body feels under any form of stress this can decrease your chance of conceiving quite substantially. Simply put, if your body is not in rest, digest and reproduce mode, it doesn’t want to get pregnant. The other thing to consider is that stress can be a major contributor to miscarriage.
Here’s my top ten ways to reduce stress for fertility.
- Yoga, every day if you can, just 15-30 mins is enough. Yoga is amazing for teaching you how to breath deeply and therapeutically. And while we’re on the topic…
- Breath. Big deep belly breaths. Do 10 when you wake every morning and before you go to sleep, then again every time you feel yourself tense up from stress or worry. Deep breathing slows the heart rate and stops your bodies stress response immediately.
- Daily ‘me’ time - I’m talking about time on your own so you can relax and clear your mind. Try and find a quiet spot to spend just 10 mins with a cup of tea, without your phone! Some people call this meditation, I call it being still. It’s harder than it sounds but stick with it daily and the benefits are huge.
- Massage - treat yourself once a week (or fortnight). If it’s hard to find the time or the cost is off putting, recruit your partner or loved ones to give you a regular shoulder or foot massage.
- Laughter - watch a funny movie, or videos on youtube, or hang out with your friend who tells hilarious stories. Laughter is proven to reduce cortisol while boosting those feel good endorphins.
- Sleep - a lot. 8 hours each night at least. If you aren’t a good sleeper look into ways to improve this. A tired body is a stressed body.
- Go easy on the exercise - high intensity cardio and heavy weights sessions in the gym increase your cortisol and put your body into fight or flight mode. If you’re trying to get pregnant now is the time to slow right down - yoga and walking is enough.
- Eat! Restricting carbs, or restricting calories causes stress as your body thinks there’s a famine. Remember; well fed = fertile. Your body is pretty smart, if it thinks there’s a food shortage it will not want to bring a baby into the world.
- Find a Stress Defuser - mine is my husband. He can identify when I’m getting stressed about something and he reminds me to pull my head in. Sometimes we don’t notice a stress response in ourselves, so ask the person closest to you to keep an eye out.
- Stay positive. Trust the process. Trying to get pregnant is one of the most stressful things a woman goes through, especially if it’s taking a while. Your mind is a powerful tool, so focus on positivity and trust that your body knows what to do.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a job as a receptionist, so I’m a Sales Manager (hello stress!), But using the techniques above I’ve been able to keep myself cool, calm and collected in situations that would have previously seen me tearing my hair out. It’s hard work but it’s getting easier.
The happy ending hasn’t come just yet, but I’m a much happier, chilled out version of my former self.
Written by Kristy Kong