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Stress and Fertility: Professor Greg Anderson Gives Us The Lowdown

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We’ve heard it a million times before, from well-intentioned friends and family members to complete strangers on the internet: stress isn’t great when trying to conceive. We get it. Stress is a big no no. But also, kind of unavoidable right now (hello, pandemic). So how much of this is myth or fact? 

Luckily for us, Professor Greg Anderson, from the Centre for Neuroendocrinology at the University of Otago in New Zealand has some answers. We asked him about his latest research findings on the impact of stress on reproduction. He breaks it down for us, below:

 

It’s not just a myth

The question of whether stress affects fertility has been a mystery, until now. Bridging the link between both is the premise of Prof. Anderson’s latest work. In this new study, researchers identified a group of RFRP nerve cells in the brain that become active in stressful situations and suppress the reproductive system. 

So, now that we know there’s actual physical evidence to back up these claims, what can we do about it? We asked Prof. Anderson what he recommended to curve these effects. From keeping our screen time in check to looking at our nutrition and overall lifestyle, here’s what he suggests for lowering stress and boosting fertility.

 

Take a stress inventory

Keep a record of your week and take note of how often you’re getting frazzled. Are you going through the kind of stress that seems never-ending? Chronic stressors like surviving a toxic work environment or constant bickering with your partner can suppress fertility. But more than observing anxiety-inducing situations, take a closer look at how you’re responding to them. Some people will be more affected by stressful situations than others, says Prof. Anderson. Since many of us aren’t able to remove ourselves from difficult circumstances or avoid stress entirely, what we should keep our focus on is building up our resilience so that we’re better able to adapt to adversity. 

 

Stop obsessing (and yes, that means googling)

Infertility anxiety is real. But when it comes to getting pregnant, keeping our stress hormones regulated can improve chances of conception. Obsessing over trying to conceive is like a vicious cycle, Prof. Anderson notes. Though it’s not easy, we need to tamp down the late-night scrolling on fertility forums (way down).  Research has shown that women struggling with infertility experience greater stress in their life compared to women without fertility challenges. While tempting, googling every other minute only elevates our cortisol and exacerbates these effects. Need help calming a buzzing mind? Check out our guided meditation on trusting the body.

 

Eat well and sleep even better

Hey, we love a good comfort food – especially when things get stressful. But sadly, not all are created equal. Turns out, what we eat can make a huge impact on how we feel emotionally.  Before your next trip to the grocery store or ordering take-out, consider this: are you providing your body with the right nutrients to ward off stress? A stress management diet can help build up your immune system and keep stress at bay. This means steering clear of simple carbs like sweets and soda and adding in more fatty fish into your diet which can prevent surges in stress hormones. Researchers have found that diets high in unsaturated fats, whole grains, vegetables, and fish have been associated with improved fertility. 

But equally important to being mindful of our diet is engaging in good sleep hygiene habits. If you know that you’re not getting good sleep, that’s likely to contribute to chronic stress. According to Prof. Anderson, all of these things together are part of a whole package. But it all comes down to setting our intention. He recommends we look at the things which start making our minds go crazy at 10pm each night and say, “I’m not going to do those.” Tonight, when it’s time to unwind for bed, try one of our sleep meditations to reduce mental distractions.

 

Strengthen your relationships

The coronavirus pandemic has upended many of the ways we previously socialized, but it’s important we look at the support structures we have in our life and think of ways for building those up. Do you have regular Zoom meetings with friends and family, or connect to online support groups? These things often slip, Prof. Anderson says, but it’s something we need to actively work on. Having a community we can rely on is essential for maintaining our stress levels down.

 

Self-awareness is key

Don’t just think about forming new health habits as a way to up your chances of conception. Prof. Anderson advocates for thinking about the bigger picture: building a life with where we are now while also planning about the future we want. What areas of your life feel out of control? He recommends taking an honest look at stressors like your career. If you’re constantly running on all cylinders, you might try to go down two thirds of a full time career for the sake of your mental health at this moment.

 

A mindfulness strategy can help

Mind-body practices like meditation increases our potential for promoting fertility by stimulating the release of pregnancy hormones from our brain and ovaries. As Prof. Anderson explains, there’s lots of different types of stress, and they all have the potential to impact fertility. Cultivating a mindfulness strategy is one of our best antidotes against these effects and increases our ability to conceive. But it also does something else: it helps build our self-compassion so we can trust the process. When we’re having a tough day on our fertility journey, it’s comforting to know that we can always turn to this key tool and be more gentle with ourselves.

 

Here are a few ways you can reduce stress when trying to conceive:

 

Meditate:

Trying to get pregnant can be a time full of hope, but it can also feel overwhelming to go through when you’re in the thick of it. Meditating for just 10 minutes a day can help you feel more calm and prepare your body for conception. We recommend these specific meditations:

Finding Calm: A meditation for the 2-week wait

Ovulation: A cycle meditation to support conception

Free & Easy: A melodic sound bath for sleep support 

 

Listen to other stories:

Learning how others have coped with uncertainty and came out on the other side can help you feel more grounded and optimistic. 

 

Get off social media:

Scrolling through baby photos or your BFF’s gender reveal celebration will only add to your stress. Disconnecting for a little while is one of the best ways to immediately center yourself. 

 

Find a support group:

You don’t have to go it alone. Wherever you find yourself on your fertility journey, finding support from other women and couples who have been through similar challenges can provide you with the connection and validation you need.

 

Want to hear our full interview with Professor Hansen? Click here to listen for free.


Are you preparing to conceive, pregnant, or new to parenthood?

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