Stress isn’t the cause of infertility, but struggling to conceive is stressful and it can make it more difficult to get pregnant. At Bourn Hall we recognise that your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing all play an important role in boosting fertility and the success of treatments. The new Wickford clinic was designed with this in mind and we have an event coming up to introduce this approach.
Alison Williamson from Plumb Blossom Clinic is one of the complementary therapists who work alongside us at the Wickford Clinic; here she writes a guest blog about how nutrition, sleep and relaxation can help you manage stress and its impact on hormone regulation.
How does stress affect our hormones?
When we are stressed we release stress hormones such as cortisol which upsets the balance of our sex hormones, which can then have a negative effect on our menstrual cycle, libido and sperm count. Stress hormones are essential for helping us through a short-term life threatening situation, which at one time would have been the sabre toothed tiger, but which has now been replaced with a constant barrage of emails and life admin, not enough sleep which can lead to poor food choices, the commute on the packed train or motorway, and of course, the emotional stress of not falling pregnant month after month. Our modern day stress is prolonged and consistent which depletes our reserves and leaves us running on empty.
How can we positively affect our hormones?
I am sure that we all know where our particular stressors are coming from; I would like to focus on some positive steps we can take to help reduce the stress hormones, freeing up resources for our sex hormones and improving fertility.
Everybody and every-body is unique so these recommendations are not going to be suitable for all. Working one to one with a therapist will help you pinpoint which type of stress you need to work on and will give you specific support, but not everyone has the resources for therapy so I have made these as general, accessible and low cost as possible.
What, when and how we eat affects our hormonal balance
A nutritionist will be able to give you very specific support in what to eat and what supplements to take, but you can start with looking at how and when you eat. Our hormones have a daily and monthly rhythm and they do benefit from regularity, so whenever possible have your meals at around the same time each day, and more importantly sit down at every mealtime. Digestion starts with our saliva glands and chewing our food properly, so one easy way to support yourself is to sit down, chew your food, with no screen time and allow yourself a few minutes of digestion before running to the next task.
The power of sleep
We do some of our best repair and rejuvenation while we sleep, but often we don’t get enough hours sleep or enough quality sleep. Our natural rhythm would have been to get up with the sunrise and settle down at sunset, and although this is no longer appropriate for modern living, looking at screens into the wee hours emits the same wavelength of light as the morning sun. This ‘blue light’ tells our brain that it’s daytime, so we stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin. No screens half an hour before bed would be good, an hour would be even better, or you can get an app on your phone or buy some ‘amber glasses’ that lower the amount of blue light. Being horizontal by 11pm would help your liver to start its job of detoxifying and metabolizing.
Give yourself permission for daily self care
Taking time out is highly underrated but vital for switching off your overactive stress response. There are apps that you can download for free which have breathing exercises, mindfulness or meditation tips. If you feel that you don’t have the time then start with 3 minutes. Breathing mindfully allows the nervous system to drop into its parasympathetic mode (rest, digest and reproduce), but you will need to do it consistently to see the results. I recommend the ‘Headspace’ app or ‘Calm’. Meditation will not suit everyone, especially if you have abundant nervous energy, so it may be more appropriate to focus on movement.
Movement rather than exercise
Exercise doesn’t have to mean joining a gym. You can stream every type of yoga from YouTube, and again, you could do just 10 minutes if that was all you had time for. The slower types of yoga such as Restorative or Yin yoga will have a more calming effect on your nervous system. Walking is a super simple yet effective way to get moving, especially outside in green spaces, and our local Park Run schemes are very inclusive as you can walk the route, and have a great sense of community. Be mindful that excessive exercise will put a strain on your body and divert energy away from the reproductive organs.
Protect yourself from environmental toxins
In our modern world we are exposed to more chemicals than ever, and this has a negative impact on our endocrine system. The next time you run out of cleaning or beauty products look to replace them with a more natural alternative. Many products we put on our body contain toxins which are endocrine disruptors so be mindful of what you are applying to your hair, face, body and nails.
Stress is stress is stress
Not falling pregnant causes emotional stress, which leads to small events being exaggerated and taking longer to recover from, like seeing yet another pregnancy announcement or your partner forgetting to take their fertility supplements. Have an honest look at your other emotional stress; too much work, too little nourishment, your needs not being met, not knowing how to say ‘no’, not feeling validated, going at 100 miles an hour throughout your menstrual cycle rather than resting during your period when your hormones at their lowest, stagnating in a job that you are hanging onto in the hope of maternity leave, running around doing everything else for everyone else and leaving yourself empty. Be really honest about what it is that you need and start where you can. Small, consistent acts of self-care will reduce your stress hormones and build your resilience for the journey ahead.
Get in your oxytocin bubble
Oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘hormone of love’ is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is associated with relationship-building, sexual activity, social bonding, labour and breastfeeding. It is released when you have sex and through touching, hugging, eye gazing – all those ‘smoochy’ things you would do with a newborn baby. It has also been found in people who participate in group sports – especially when there is lots of hugging and bodily contact. Making love can turn into timed ‘baby making sex’ once you have been trying to conceive for some time. Connecting with your partner in a more sensual way, holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes, massages and re-building intimacy will get your oxytocin flowing, which reduces stress and anxiety.
Get back to basics
When our body senses real or perceived stress it feels that we are under attack so it will set priorities. Unfortunately, falling pregnant is not seen as a priority, but there are lots of ways for you to redress your hormone balance. You don’t have to do everything all at once, if your diet seems too overwhelming to fix then try yoga, if you can’t stand the thought of meditation then focus on eating your meals without a screen. Build your vitality and resources so you have enough energy for the 9 months of pregnancy, and the months and years of the post-natal period.