It has been widely demonstrated in humans, that stress adversely effects fertility. Highly stressed individuals have increased difficulties with ovulation, fertilization, implantation and a healthy full-term pregnancy. Women attempting conception are experiencing stress in their day to day lives from the challenges of life, work and responsibility, and for women trying to have a baby, the concern that they will not be successful. Stress is my personal “pet-peeve” because it affects fertility in a profound way but often goes underappreciated among all the blood test results, Western diagnoses and endless information and confusion. Stress is Nature’s own birth control method. But at the same time I’m grateful that stress forms such a significant piece of the fertility picture because it can be fairly easily managed sufficiently.
In a large federally funded study, it was demonstrated that women who were trying to conceive that participated in stress-reduction had a 55% “take home baby rate” compared to 20% in women who did not participate.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is particularly effective at reducing the chronic or acutely stressful state of mind. An on-line article published by the Texas Fertility Center, a Western Medical Treatment Center that incorporates Acupuncture into their protocols, explained the mechanism by which stress can inhibit a woman’s capacity to conceive, and goes on to suggest that acupuncture relieves stress by stimulating the release of naturally occurring endorphins, our “happy” hormones.
There is a basic biological axiom that women’s bodies (and all mammals for that matter), are physiologically impacted by their environments, and are less receptive to ovulation, fertilization, implantation and maintenance of pregnancy while experiencing stress.
The scientific explanation is that during humanity’s long history on Earth, stressful situations and uncertainty have equated with hazardous times to carry and bear a child, or to have a small child in tow. For example, if a population was stressed due to starvation or environmental challenges, pregnant mothers and children were the most vulnerable. Women with a genetic predisposition towards infertility during stressful times tended to survive to reproduce later when times were better, passing these genetic predispositions on to their descendants. The gene for reduced fertility during stress has been so strongly selected for species survival that it is ubiquitous not only in human populations, but in all mammalian populations.
Modern causes of stress are complex and varied, but our bodies still react to stress in any form, in the same way as our progenitors. If you’re stressed, your genetic memory signals to your body that it is not a safe time to be pregnant, and your body will take steps to delay pregnancy until life becomes less stressful.
It seems logical to assign your fertility ups and downs to the Western diagnosis you’ve received, and not consider stress in a significant way. Listen to your body. There is more to infertility than a Western diagnosis and treatment. Advocate for yourself and your coming baby. Your body is the universe that grows your baby, and being in a state of stress does not make a fertile garden.
And so if you’ve decided that you want to have a baby and are feeling a lot of stress, it’s important that you receive stress reduction treatment and make efforts in your daily life to reduce stress. A little bit goes a long way. See your acupuncturist once or twice a week to reduce your stress. Please see below the section “Extra Credit: 13 Things You Can Do”.
Another way some women signal to their bodies that times are tough, is by over-exercising and under-eating. In humanity’s distant past, if we were having to run excessively, it was probably because we were being chased a lot. By saber-toothed tigers, or conquering tribes, or what have you. ( : Gentle to moderate exercise is great when you’re trying to conceive and throughout pregnancy. But running as if your life depended on it is sure to give your body the wrong idea, even if it makes you feel good. Take a break to have a baby! Once you do you’re sure to be lifting, carrying, and running like you were training for the Navy Seals, and you won’t even need a gym!
Throughout humanity’s history, a low BMI was seen in undernourished populations, and healthier BMI’s reflected well-fed prosperous and harmonious living. When a woman’s BMI falls below 19, nature takes over, and sensing famine, shuts down ovulation in order to protect a mother against the stresses of pregnancy during famine, as well as protecting a baby from malnourishment. Having a little “baby fat” tells your body that times are stable enough with plenty to eat – good baby-making times. At the other end are women with BMI’s that are high enough that fertility becomes effected. A BMI in excess of 30 is reflected by a 50% decrease in fertility.
Considering these ideal values, it can seem like quite a challenge if not a full time job to meet these goals. The way life is constructed with most of us sitting at desks or in front of the t.v. instead of chopping wood and walking long distances in the absence of cars, and eating food that is convenient to our busy lives but not ideal to our healthiness, making changes from what we are familiar with can be very challenging. Luckily Traditional Chinese Medicine works even if you don’t have an ideal BMI. But saying that, when it comes time to have a baby, you may need to put some effort into living your life in a way that supports your fertility, through changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle.
To calculate BMI click here. Bear in mind that BMI calculations are approximate because they don’t take into consideration your natural body type. But the BMI calculator is a good reference. There are three basic body morphologies. An ectomorph is the typical skinny person with long thin limbs, narrow shoulders and lean stringy muscles. A mesomorph is stockier with well developed musculature, wider shoulders and lean body fat. And an endomorph typically has a round abdomen shorter arms and legs with slender wrists and ankles with more body fat. Your actual BMI is affected by your morphology. Ideal BMI’s are based on the mesomorph body type. So if you’re naturally an endomorph and your calculated BMI seems too high, it may be that your healthy BMI is different than that of a mesomorph or ectomorph. Similarly if you’re an ectomorph with a very low BMI, it may not be that far from your healthy BMI. Although it’s not possible to change your basic body morphology, Traditional Chinese Medicine can help you to lose weight if your BMI is above 30, or increase your appetite if your BMI is below 19.
If you’re not sleeping well, that’s going to leave you in a state of physiological stress. Women with insomnia have been shown to struggle with infertility at rates four times those of women who sleep normally. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine do a great job at improving healthy sleeping. A consistent good night’s rest will do wonders if you’re sleep deprived. Here is a link to the website for Tuck.com that describes the importance of sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle and how it impacts your fertility challenges along with effective steps that you can take home to manage your sleep better. If you like TED Talks, here’s one on sleep deprivation that I thought was unique that might work for you. I would suggest you skip to 6:38 for the explanation or 8:27 for the actual technique.
The goal is not to become “stress free”. That would be impossible. The goal is to reduce your stress by any amount no matter how small, on a regular basis every day. By doing this you’re sending your body signals that it is a good and safe time to become pregnant and care for a new baby. Without your body’s unspoken permission and cooperation, becoming pregnant becomes more of an uphill experience.
Stress Reduction is effectively managed by Traditional Chinese Medical Treatment.
I practice stress reduction through Acupuncture, Moxibustion and through Tui Na massage. Specific powerful Acupuncture points are indicated for alleviating stress, anxiety, and poor sleeping. Application of the heat generated by the burning of Chinese Moxabustion herbs sends healing warmth into your body’s yang center, directly connected to the reproductive organs and the process of reproduction. The warmth of Moxibustion is universally experienced as relaxing. Tui Na massage moves the Qi and blood in your body, and improves hormonal balance and blood flow to the reproductive organs, in addition to freeing the blocked Qi in the meridians due to the experience of stress.
A useful thing to accept is that you have considerable control what goes on with your body. This is a simple and absolute truth. When you decide that it is time to have a baby, there are plenty of simple things that you can do to reduce your stress and take care of yourself. Think of it as homework, unless that stresses you out. ( :
Extra Credit: 13 Things You Can Do
If you’ve made it this far on this page, I’m impressed! But it’s not over yet because I want to present to you a Western portrait of stress, how stress affects your fertility, and some things you can do outside of Traditional Chinese Medical Treatment to help yourself be more fertile in the face of stress.
When you experience stress your body assumes the physiological state of “fight or flight”, and your adrenal glands release Cortisol. Cortisol is known as the “Stress Hormone”. Cortisol has the effect of focusing the body’s resources on survival. Survival mode is great for short duration experiences of stress, but it’s not uncommon to to find yourself spending too much time in survival mode while living with the stresses of modern life. During long term physiological stress Cortisol causes high blood pressure, affects sugar metabolism making you more prone to type 2 diabetes and obesity, affects electrolyte balance, metabolism and the ability to form memories, and for our purposes here, confuses the balance of your fertility hormones, thereby putting up roadblocks to your ability to conceive.
When stress is removed, Cortisol restores to restive levels and your fertility hormones can do their job unhindered. Anything that you do that consistently and regularly reduces your stress, for minutes, hours or any time between will bring your cortisol levels down, thereby sending smoke signals to your body that it is a good time to be pregnant.
Here are a list of 13 things outside of Traditional Chinese Medical treatment that you can choose from, to reduce stress in order to lower Cortisol and improve your Fertility.
- Get your “best” sleep. To do so, spend some time being physically active during the day, try to adhere to a set bedtime, drink no caffeine after 5pm, avoid bright lights and staring at computer screens for extended periods, after you’ve had dinner, avoid drinking fluids for at least a half hour before bed, turn off your phone,and use white noise or earplugs to block out distracting noises. And if you feel sleep deprived, take naps during the day. What is important is that your mind and body feel rested. Here is a link to one of the soundtracks I use in my office for relaxation. It may help you get sleepy. It is three hours long. And as mentioned above, if you like TED Talks, here’s one on falling asleep and staying asleep that I thought was unique. You may choose to skip to 6:38 for the explanation or 8:27 for the actual technique.
- Spend some time being physically active. Although maximum exercise increases Cortisol, mild to moderate exercise (50% of maximum) does not. It is natural for humans to work their muscles every day. Sedentary living is a modern phenomenon, and not one of our healthier inventions. Yoga, Chinese Qi Gong Energy practice, and Tai Chi are also great ways to get your body moving. For reducing stress and Cortisol, Tai Chi has a slight advantage over the other two forms.
- Recognize when you’re having stressful thoughts. We can’t avoid having stressful thoughts, but by simply recognizing and identifying when that’s going on, magically the experience of stress decreases a notch. And when you can recognize stressful thinking caused by something that is within your control, you can reduce it. A great example of this is Google surfing about infertility. Giving yourself a bunch more stuff to worry about is not going to help!
- Breathe! There are simple things you can do to make Stress and Cortisol drop. Invest in a relaxation or meditation app. A 50% decrease in Cortisol has been demonstrated in individuals who habitually practice deep breathing exercises. Massage reduces Cortisol by 30%. Yoga, and Tai Chi in particular, lower Cortisol levels plus you get to meet interesting people!
- My Favorite Things. Have fun! Do cool stuff! Give yourself reasons to be happy! Studies have demonstrated that laughing, gardening, outdoor activities and engaging in hobbies decrease Cortisol. I bet you could add to that list. Whatever floats your boat!
- Be Patient. Healthy Relationships are associated with lower Cortisol levels. And so it should come as no surprise that the opposite is true when there’s a less than perfect “balance” in the important relationships in your life. Some guiding principles could include non-judgmental communication, intimacy, patience and affection. If you feel like your relationship balance could use some sprucing up, you can open a dialog with an affectionate, patient and non-judgmental appeal to your loved one about being more affectionate, patient and non-judgmental. ( : Easier said than done sometimes. But you can begin by leading by example. Or if you feel like your partner relationship needs work there’s always the couples therapy route!
- Puppy Kisses. Believe it or not, having a dog lowers Cortisol in your body. The bad news is that if you already have a dog, to further decrease Cortisol levels you have to get another one. (I’m serious). If you’re not in it for the long haul, but you’re looking for a professional low-maintanance companion, you can rent a therapy dog. It’s also been demonstrated that being a loving and patient dog owner lowers your pup’s Cortisol, so it’s a double benefit!
- Only The Best! Although we wish to be at our personal best, we can slip into thinking in ways that make that hard. Because being at our best is not limited to our outward presence, interactions and actions. Too often we stress out about our internal selves, and how we feel about ourselves. Although we often minimize our own feelings, our internal selves play perhaps the biggest part of our experience of life. Hidden feelings of Guilt, Shame and Inadequacy are common to all humans. But like anything that increases our stress, our feelings can keep Cortisol levels high. So how do we unload these feelings? Therapists say, with practice. You can enroll in the school of forgiveness, with a concentration on yourself. If you can remember two things when you’re having negative thoughts about yourself, consider yourself in class. The “two things” are 1. recognition that you’re having negative thoughts about yourself, and 2. if only for a couple of seconds, fully allow yourself to forgive yourself. Then let your mind go where it will again. These tiny positive contributions will begin to impact the negative messaging that you give yourself. It takes time and a little mindfulness to keep at it, but think of all the time and work you put into developing the least favorite parts of yourself. One thing that you can do that isn’t as challenging as forgiving yourself is to practice forgiving others. This will give you a template for forgiving yourself. A nice goal to aspire to is to forgive yourself as you would forgive others – you’re worthy of that kindness as much as others are. Another thing you can do is to fix it if you can. If you’ve created a situation that you could maybe remedy if you were brave enough, be brave enough! If you’re feeling guilt over hurting someone or making a mess out of a situation because of something less-than-sensitive that you did, or if you feel someone has done something to harm you, be brave and speak to that person calmly and compassionately. And as my mother says, if you meant no harm and it was out of your control, let the universe take care of it.
- Faith. If you are on the God/Allah/Buddah/YHWH/Hindu-squad, then tend to and develop your Faith! Prayer is good. It’s not called meditation by accident. People of Faith have been shown to have lower Cortisol and Stress levels when they are actively practicing. Hallelujah!
- Bon Appetite! Good eating guidelines can be found everywhere. The hard part is following them. A healthy body produces less Cortisol. Sugar increases Cortisol. A healthy body produces a healthier pregnancy. Obesity and over consumption can lead to gestational diabetes, which can cause your baby to grow too much for the space you have available, creating an emergency situation or a Cesarean delivery. So try to eat well, for your own health, your fertility, and for your developing baby. Here’s a few pointers and bright spots specifically related to keeping Cortisol levels low: Bananas and Pears reduce Cortisol. So does dark chocolate, and occasional reasonable sweet treats. Reward is a Cortisol reducer – but not too much reward please. If you rely on caffeine, Black and Green Tea produce less Cortisol than Coffee. Yogurt and Kimchi contain probiotics that help lower Cortisol, but are optimally taken with prebiotics, which include soluble firer that feeds the probiotics. The more hydrated you are, the less the concentration of Cortisol. It’s also important to stay optimally hydrated for a number of reasons ranging from the production of fertile cervical mucous before pregnancy, to maintaining healthy blood chemistry once you’re pregnant.
- And that’s not all… If you are trying to get pregnant, or are pregnant, there are certain agreed upon Supplements that you should be taking, and others that are sometimes recommended, and others that you should use in moderation or stay away from entirely. There are two supplements that specifically lower Cortisol levels. The first is fish oil which is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, which lower Cortisol levels. The other is Ashwagandha which is an Asian herb used to treat anxiety and stress, thereby reducing Cortisol. Here is a link to my own list of acceptable supplements, and another for supplements that should be avoided when pregnant or considering pregnancy.
- Join a Fertility Blog. Contrary to some of our fears that fertility blogs insight stress and fear, some Fertility Blogs support women with technical questions and concerns. And they do a fantastic job at that. Post a question or concern, and you’ll get half a dozen to 50 helpful and always supportive replies from real women living or having lived the same experience. I have a 12,000 member favorite from the United Kingdom, healthunlocked.com so the language is a little different (and fun!), but it is very low stress and very very supportive. In addition there are plenty of domestic blogs to choose from. There are a ton of abbreviations used by women on fertility blogs. It’s like being part of a secret club. Here’s a link to abbreviations. Every morning I read for about a half hour while I drink my coffee, kind of like the morning paper. Just randomly pick up a thread and read or focus on women with your same questions and concerns. It is more useful than I can explain. Give it a try.
- Ditch Google! A huge stress comes from searching for answers on Google. You want to know what’s going on, and the internet is the source for information. Right? And we find endless links and none of it leaves us with a lighter heart. We tell ourselves that we will be more in control if we are better informed, but usually the information is vague enough to cause unwarranted concern, is confusing, or lacks promise. Rarely does the information that we find assure us. There’s a real word for this. Cyberchondria. In fact you are not increasing your chances of having a baby by spending hours mining the internet for information as your body floods with Cortisol and your blood pressure climbs. Too often the information is discouraging and may leave you experiencing more stressful feelings. Your progression on this journey will take it’s course just as it would have before the internet was invented. Stay off the computer and start noticing your stress levels decreasing. It will be hard, but you can do it!