Stressed? It could be affecting your fertility

Dr Stephanie Bradstock talks about stress and how it can affect your chance of getting pregnant.

Written by Dr Stephanie Bradstock
Shot of a young woman having a stressful day at workhttp://

Some planning for pregnancy is important. It is a good time to clean up your lifestyle and diet, to visit your GP for a check-up and advice, and to learn about your hospital birth options and make sure you are appropriately covered.

But for many, getting pregnant doesn’t always go to plan.

According to Dr Stephanie Bradstock, Psychiatrist and National Medical Director of Mental Health Programs at Medibank, like being pregnant or caring for a newborn–-trying to get pregnant can take us into a new realm of unpredictability in our lives.

“Whilst this may be simple for some, for others it may not happen on time or to plan, and can be a source of great anxiety,” she says.

1 in 6 couples struggle to get pregnant

Infertility is not uncommon, in fact around one in six Australian couples will have difficulty getting pregnant.

There are many possible causes of infertility, and it affects both men and women. For women, it might be problems with the reproductive tract such as endometriosis or infection —or it might have something to do with your menstrual cycle. For men, it can be caused by problems with producing sperm, or medications. For both men and women, other factors may include chronic medical illness, weight or smoking tobacco.

But there are also lesser known reasons that can impact our fertility.

MORE: What are your options when you can't get pregnant

Can stress have an impact on fertility?

“We have long known that in response to extreme physical or emotional stress such as famine or trauma or grief, a woman’s cycle may temporarily shut down and she will stop ovulating. Marked weight loss or excessive exercise can also do this,” says Dr Bradstock.

But with data in the Medibank Better Health Index reporting that 26% of Australians are stressed, a number that is rising every year –is everyday stress stopping us from getting pregnant?

It appears that while the relationship between stress and fertility is complex – the stress of work deadlines, relationship problems, and even the stress that comes with difficulties falling pregnant -- cannot be overlooked.

“Recent studies have looked at the impact of lower level, everyday stress on fertility and these point to more subtle effects with increased difficulties conceiving. Impacts may be for both male and female factors involved in fertility.” Says Dr Bradstock.

“Stressed people may engage in unhealthy behaviours to cope such as drinking, smoking, poor diet, not exercising. Depression, loss of enjoyment, loss of interest in sex may arise from chronic stress.”

MORE: 5 simple ways to relieve stress

In addition to these issues, studies point to impacts of stress on the body. A recent study revealed that women who reported feeling more stressed during their ovulatory window were approximately 40-percent less likely to conceive during that month than other less stressful months. And women who generally reported feeling more stressed than other women, were about 45-percent less likely to conceive.

Another study also looked at how stress can impact a male’s fertility, with the results suggesting stress can reduce sperm and semen quality.

So what does this mean?

Stress can be unavoidable. We don’t live in a bubble – many people are planning a pregnancy at the same time as managing careers, saving for homes, caring for unwell or ageing parents or relatives.

And the last thing a couple who are desperately trying to get pregnant need to be told is to “stress less”, “just relax”, or that it will happen when they least expect it.

But Dr Bradstock says that practising stress management techniques can help.

“There is good evidence that stress management techniques can be really effective in improving people’s pregnancy outcomes.”

Strategies to de-stress

Here are Dr Stephanie Bradstock's tips for managing your stress while trying to conceive.

  • Try to get the right amount of physical activity. Moderate (not excessive) exercise, such as yoga or swimming can be great.
  • Take time out. Relax, meditate, read, get a massage or listen to music.
  • Keep a broad focus. Maintain personal identity and interests beyond achieving pregnancy – enjoy friendships, hobbies, team sports, volunteering.
  • Enjoy positive couple time. Movies, walks, dinners. Sex for fun, and not just according to schedule for conception.
  • Improve your understanding of your cycle and timing for conception. So that you’re not worrying unnecessarily.
  • Seek support. Talk to a trusted friend or counselor if worry is becoming overwhelming.

If you have a history of mental health concerns prior to planning a pregnancy – check in with your GP, Psychiatrist or psychologist for good advice around staying well, managing stress and safe medication options.

Get more expert information and advice on planning for pregnancy.

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