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How Stress Impacts Fertility (And What You Can Do About It)
New research from the University of Otago shows how stress directly increases your likelihood of infertility
June 14, 2021
The connection between stress and infertility has long been a subject of debate. While some past studies have found relationships between stress and infertility, they have typically failed to establish causation, and other studies have shown no relationship at all.
This changed recently, thanks to groundbreaking research from the University of Otago. For the first time, researchers have found the “missing link” that shows exactly how stress can cause infertility. That link is the RFRP neuron.
RFRP neurons — What are they, and why do they matter?
RFRP neurons are nerve cells near the base of your brain that become active in stressful situations. A recent study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that these neurons suppress the reproductive system in mammals, causing higher rates of infertility.
The research team, led by Professor Greg Anderson of the Centre for Neuroendocrinology at the University of Otago, used cutting-edge technology to increase the activity of just RFRP neurons. They found that when they did this, reproductive hormones were suppressed. This reaction was most evident in females.
Before this study was published, it was often believed that the stress hormone cortisol was responsible for apparent connections between stress and infertility. But the neurons controlling reproduction don’t actually respond to cortisol, suggesting that there must be a different culprit.
"Amazingly, when we used cortisol to suppress the reproductive hormones but also silenced the RFRP neurons, the reproductive system continued to function as if cortisol wasn't there at all — proving that the RFRP neurons are a critical piece of the puzzle in stress-induced suppression of reproduction,” said Professor Anderson.
There are already drugs that block the actions of RFRP neurons, which Professor Anderson says may eventually be used as treatment for infertility. For the time being, these drugs are not approved for human use.
How else can stress impact fertility?
Professor Anderson’s research on RFRP neurons has found the most direct link between stress and infertility. But this isn’t the only way stress can influence your chances at pregnancy. Here are some more indirect ways that stress may impact fertility:
Your menstrual cycle
First, it has been found that stress impacts your period. Your menstrual cycle is controlled by a mechanism consisting of your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries. Cortisol can interrupt the important interactions in this mechanism, leading to a delayed or lighter period than normal.
In the long term, this can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, making it more difficult to predict when you are ovulating. Sometimes, stress can even cause you to miss your period entirely.
Getting quality sleep is important for your overall health and wellness, so it may come as no surprise that sleep affects fertility as well. The part of your brain that releases sleep hormones, such as melatonin, also releases reproductive hormones.
Overwhelming amounts of stress can lead to acute or chronic insomnia, depriving you of the sleep you need. Long-term sleep deprivation can impact the release of luteinizing hormone (LH), which triggers ovulation in women and testosterone production in men.
Stress can impact your actions in ways that aren’t conducive to getting pregnant. It may decrease your libido or make you feel that you have no time for sex. It can increase your likelihood of smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol or caffeine. And of course, who hasn’t reached for their favorite sugary comfort food in a moment of stress?
Each of these behaviors has been associated with lower fertility rates. However, there are other coping mechanisms for stress that are less likely to interfere with your reproductive health.
How can I reduce my stress levels?
Learning how stress links to infertility may leave you feeling overwhelmed and wondering what to do. Luckily, there are many simple things that you can do to relieve your stress, including:
Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the most important and effective methods of reducing stress and anxiety. It improves your sleep quality, decreases your stress hormones, releases endorphins, and increases your confidence.
Venting. Whether you’re writing down your thoughts in a private journal or talking to a close friend or partner, it is important to express the way you feel. Bottling up negative emotions like stress often makes them stronger.
Finding balance. Make time to do the things that make you happy — like being with friends and family, listening to music, cooking, or playing with your adorable pets, amongst other things. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to increased responsibilities that overwhelm you.
Yoga and meditation. Both of these stress-relief methods focus on building a connection between your body and your mind, helping you to combat stress, anxiety, and negative thinking.
Eating (and drinking) right. There are many foods that have been found to relieve stress, including salmon and dark chocolate (Yum!). Also, some teas, including green tea, contain calming ingredients like theanine. Avoid sugary junk food, coffee, and energy drinks.
Therapy. If you struggle to manage your stress on your own, a licensed mental health professional can offer you objective advice and help you develop healthy coping mechanisms. Many believe you have to be mentally ill or severely struggling to see a therapist, but this is not true!
It’s no secret that decreasing stress improves your mood, energy, sleep, and mental and physical health. Now, thanks to the research of Professor Anderson, we also know that decreasing stress may improve your fertility. Following these stress-reduction tips, especially in combination with fertility treatment, could increase your chances of getting pregnant.
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