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It may come as no surprise that stress influences everything from our mental health and concentration to weight management and digestion. But did you know it impacts our feminine health, too? And we‘re not just talking about the temporary effects of stress on our menstrual cycles. Short-term stress is enough to cause a missed or irregular period. But research supports the tenet that chronic psychosocial stress contributes to infertility, and relief from stress promotes healthy fertility.

Michelle Cretella, MD, is a board-certified doctor and president of the American College of Pediatricians, a national organization of health care professionals dedicated to protecting the child and preserving the family. She generously answered our questions about this surprisingly strong relationship between our female hormones and stress.

Q. What is stress, from a medical perspective?

Dr. Cretella: Our body's reaction to stress is a hardwired "fight or flight response." This refers to the body's release of hormones in response to physical and emotional or psychological threats, like being confronted by a large barking dog, preparing for exams, or reacting to the death of a loved one.

Q. What happens to my body when I‘m stressed out?

Dr. Cretella: The body releases two major stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline (also known as catecholamines), and others, including prolactin (which stimulates breast milk for nursing). As a result, we get a jolt to get away from the German Shepherd, ace our finals, and take time out to grieve our loss. Clearly, the stress response is a good thing when we are confronted by short-term threats or difficulties. Chronic stress, however, is an entirely different story due to how the stress hormones impact our other body systems.

Q. Just how bad is chronic stress?

Dr. Cretella: When we experience nearly continuous stress, like shouldering an excessive workload, struggling to make ends meet, or even the typical demands of caring for children and extended family, our body activates and maintains the stress-response system. The result is overexposure to cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones which can disrupt nearly all of our body's processes. This puts us at risk for many physical and psychological health problems, including: anxiety, depression, insomnia, headaches, heart disease, digestive problems, weight loss or gain, memory and concentration impairment, and menstrual disturbances even to the point of infertility.

Q. How does stress affect my fertility hormones?

Dr. Cretella: Cortisol, catecholamines and prolactin all block secretion of the body's main fertility hormone, GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone), which is responsible for releasing sex hormones. As a result of stress, both women and men may experience low libido, men may develop low sperm counts, and women may fail to ovulate. In one study, women who experienced long-term high stress levels ovulated 20 percent fewer eggs compared to women who experienced lower levels of stress. This situation has been referred to as “stress-induced reproductive dysfunction.”

This last point is of particular interest and importance because infertility due to stress resolves when individuals are able to find ways to deal differently with or overcome their stressors.

Q. What are some ways to safeguard against and recover from stress?

Dr. Cretella: Avoid over-committing yourself (learn to say no to others without feeling guilty). We are to love our neighbor as ourselves—that means we need to take care of ourselves first in order to help others. Eat a balanced diet. Participate in regular exercise (at least thirty minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week). Time throughout the day for quiet reflection. Minimize screen time (television, social media, any and everything with a screen activates areas of the brain associated with ADD and will disrupt sleep). Maintain real (as opposed to virtual) friendships. And do not hesitate to seek out a therapist to help with achieving these goals and/or to assist you in recovering from addictions, depression or anxiety.

Photo Credit: Brittni Willie