Stress, the Brain and Fertility

How Much Does Stress Impact My Fertility?

Most people understand that there is a link between stress and our health since the media does cover some of the research that proves stress plays a role in many health issues. Our culture today also makes it impossible to just remove stress from our lives, and the truth is today we have unparalleled levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Expectations and demands come as a result of societal and family pressure, not to mention financial and career anxiety that underlies everything.

On top of the “new stress norm” of today’s world, there are studies that show women who are experiencing problems getting pregnant have similar levels of depression and anxiety as those suffering with life-threatening diseases like cancer or heart disease. This makes sense to us because infertility impacts every facet of ones life, similar to life-threatening diseases. Our programs are meant to help you to take a break from the stress that normal life throws AND the added stress trying to get pregnant piles on. They allow you to take time for yourself every day to truly check out and deeply relax.  And we take it one step further and provide medically based visualization exercises that track to your monthly cycle, opening the mind-body connection.  Underlie that with wonderful alpha-state music that sets the stage for peace and tranquility.

Stress negatively impacts our fertility. And unfortunately, stress is compounded when we try to conceive month after month, creating a downward spiral that is difficult to break.

You may have heard countless stories of couples who give up on pregnancy and finally elect to adopt, and then miraculously get pregnant.  Or, they go on vacation to forget their tribulations with their infertility struggle, and then viola, they get pregnant while away.  Up until now, such anecdotal stories were just that – wives tales that had the effect of causing even more stress on infertile couples making them think the failure to conceive was their fault.

Recent studies conducted by leading researchers in the infertility field are impressive and starting to gain increased attention from the medical establishment:

Emory University’s Dr. Sarah Berga describes the link between stress and infertility with the fact that the hypothalamus is fertility’s “master of ceremonies,” a major nerve center in the brain that ALSO is the regulator and receptor of stress, emitting cortisol when needed to keep our bodies in balance. Let us repeat this extraordinary fact:  a walnut-sized portion of our brain  – the hypothalamus –  handles BOTH stress and the functioning of our reproductive system, underscoring that every month there is a very delicate interplay of hormones leading to successful ovulation.

As outlined in the article entitled “A Low-Tech Approach to Fertility:  Just Relax” published by The New York Times, Dr. Berga’s studies are summarized here:

  • A cascade of events, beginning with stress, leads to reduced levels of two hormones crucial for ovulation.
  • In a study of 16 women reported in 2003 journal of Fertility and Sterility, Dr. Berga showed that ovulation was restored in 7 of 8 women who underwent cognitive behavioral therapy, compared with 2 of 8 who did not get therapy.
  • The research she had done along with her published studies, “small but scrupulous, are starting to convince her critics.”
  • In 2006, in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, she reported that women who did not ovulate had excessive levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the brain fluid.

Other studies and data points include the following:

  • Recent studies conducted at Harvard Medical School on 184 women going through relaxation training for infertility:  55% had a viable pregnancy within one year, compared to only 20% of the control group achieving a viable pregnancy;
  • In a study with women undergoing donor sperm insemination, those with higher levels of anxiety prior to undergoing inseminations took significantly longer to conceive (Demyttenaere, Nijs, Steeno and Koninckx, 1988);
  • Women who were not stressed and/or depressed before starting IVF treatment had a conception rate twice as high as women who were stressed and/or depressed before treatment (Thiering, Beaurepaire, Jones & Saunders, 1993);
  • Research has shown that women undergoing treatment for infertility have a similar, and often higher, level of stress as women dealing with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.  In addition, they report that “infertile couples experience chronic stress each month, first hoping that they will conceive and then dealing with the disappointment if they do not.  When diagnosed with infertility, many couples may no longer feel in control of their bodies or their life plan.  Infertility can be a major crisis because of the important life goal of parenthood is threatened.