How Does Adrenaline and Stress Affect Fertility?
One of the fastest ways to ‘turn fertility off’ is to be in a stressful state. What is adrenaline? How does affect your fertility? Continue reading to learn the physiological impacts of stress and practical tools to keep you out of stress and in a beautiful, fertile state!
What Is Adrenaline?
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a hormone released by your adrenal (suprarenal) glands which are located atop each of your kidneys. Your adrenal glands, controlled by the pituitary gland, actually produce many hormones and are divided into two parts – the outer and inner glands. Adrenaline, produced in the inner gland, is released in response to stressful, exciting, dangerous, or threatening situations – giving it the nickname the “fight-or-flight hormone”. Adrenaline helps your body react quicker by increasing the blood flow to your brain and muscles, in an adrenaline rush. An adrenaline rush occurs when the brain perceives a dangerous or stressful situation and then tells the adrenal glands to release adrenaline into the bloodstream.
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Adrenaline breaks down sugar molecules to give your muscles a boost of energy. It also binds to muscle cell receptors in your lungs to make you breathe faster by expanding your air passages and causes blood vessels to contract which directs blood toward your major muscle groups. Furthermore, it stimulates perspiration by contracting muscle cells below the skin. Additionally, it stimulates heart cells so that it beats faster and inhibits the production of insulin by binding to receptors on the pancreas.
Symptoms of an adrenaline rush include rapid heart rate, sweating, heightened senses, rapid breathing, decreased ability to feel pain, increased strength/performance, dilated pupils, and feeling jittery or nervous. The effects of an adrenaline rush can last up to an hour.
Adrenaline can become problematic when released in response to everyday stress and anxiety. If your mind is full of stress or anxious thoughts, especially at night when they’re the only thing you focus on, your brain can perceive this similarly to the stress caused by a dangerous situation and release adrenaline.
Adrenaline can also be released as a response to loud noises, bright lights, and high temperatures so avoid doing activities (e.g. television, phones, computer, loud music, etc.) that could cause an adrenaline rush before you go to sleep. Also, adrenaline may be released in the night if you have difficulties breathing in your sleep due to conditions such as untreated obstructive sleep apnea.
Here are some ways to control your adrenaline:
- Deep breathing exercises.
- Focus on a soothing word (such as ‘peace’ or ‘calm’).
- Visualisation of tranquil scenes.
- Repetitive prayer.
- Yoga exercises.
- Talk to family, friends or a diary about stressful situations so that you’ll be less likely to dwell on them.
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption.
- Avoid tobacco and recreational drug use.
- Avoid activities that might cause an adrenaline rush before bedtime.
- Take time to do relaxing activities that you enjoy.
- Removing unnecessary tasks from your life to reduce your workload.
- Seek professional counseling to help you develop specific coping strategies.
Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to learning how people can counter the stress response by using a combination of approaches similar to the ones listed above that elicit the relaxation response. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a double-blind, randomised trial of 122 patients with hypertension (ages 55+), in which half were assigned to relaxation response training and the other half to a control group that received information about blood pressure control. After eight weeks, 34 of the people who practiced the relaxation response had achieved a systolic blood pressure reduction of more than 5 mm Hg, and were therefore eligible for the next phase of the study, in which they could reduce the levels of blood pressure medication they were taking. During that second phase, 50% were able to eliminate at least one blood pressure medication – significantly more than the control group, where only 19% eliminated their medication
What Is Cortisol?
Another hormone that is made by the adrenal glands is the “stress hormone” cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone used to help control blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, helps reduce inflammation, and assists with memory formation. Cortisol curbs non-essential functions such as altering the immune response and suppressing the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. However, in pregnant women, cortisol also supports the developing fetus. Long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at risk of many health problems such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension, muscle pain, heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, sleep problems, weight gain, memory impairment, and concentration impairment.
The sudden onset of stress and excess stress hormones released in your body during an adrenaline rush can have negative effects. The physical and emotional stress placed on your body can be damaging to your heart. There is a condition known as “broken-heart syndrome” which happens when your blood flow is reduced due to intense emotional distress. It is hard to measure adrenaline rushes, so the exact negative impacts are not fully understood, but these impacts are believed to include high blood pressure, anxiety, dizziness, light-headedness, and vision change. Additionally, once the rush passes, you may start to feel irritable, fidgety, and too much adrenaline could increase your potential for heart damage – especially if you have a pre-existing condition such as cardiovascular disease. Finally, restlessness (inability to sleep) and nervousness are common effects of too much adrenaline.
How Can Stress Affect Fertility?
The hypothalamus regulates the pituitary, so when stress interferes with the hypothalamus it is hindered from sending the right hormone messages to the pituitary, which in turn is kept from releasing the necessary hormones to the ovaries.
It has been hypothesized since biblical times that stress can hamper fertility and similar old wives’ tales that support this notion. More recent studies on women seeking infertility treatment has shown that a high portion of them showed signs of anxiety or depression and that their stress levels increased as more time passed by without successfully conceiving.
Some common pregnancy-related sources of stress:
- Fear of pregnancy loss.
- Fear of labor and delivery.
- Uncomfortable physical changes, like nausea, tiredness, mood swings, and backache.
- Work and helping your employer prepare for your maternity leave.
- Fear of taking care of the baby.
- Financial stress related to raising a child.
“We know now that stress hormones such as cortisol disrupt signaling between the brain and the ovaries, which can trip up ovulation.”
– Sarah Berga, MD, infertility specialist and vice chair of women’s health at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Increased levels of cortisol brought about by stress can possibly interfere with follicular development and the inflammatory processes that are required for you to ovulate. Several recent studies have found links between a woman’s levels of day-to-day stress and lowered chances of pregnancy. For example, women whose saliva had high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that marks stress, took 29% longer to get pregnant compared to those who had less. Moreover, stressed women are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol/caffeine and have less sex which further decreases their chances of pregnancy. In severe cases, stress may also affect ovulation production.
Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and director of mind/body services at Boston IVF, published a study that found that among women who had trouble conceiving, those who received cognitive behavioral therapy were almost twice as likely to end up pregnant as those who didn’t. One such person was Urit Chaimovitz, who had been trying for 2 years to get pregnant without success. She had managed to get pregnant four times, both naturally and with IVF, but each time she lost the baby around the second trimester. That was until she signed up to a program led by Domar which consisted of 10-week sessions including yoga, meditation, and learning behavioral techniques like overcoming negative thoughts. Several months after finishing the program, Chaimovitz got pregnant again and her daughter, Romi, was born in 2018.
Domar is also quoted as saying “women struggling with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women diagnosed with cancer or HIV” and “a lot of my patients are angry at their bodies, so they stop taking care of it”.
A study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford supports the widespread belief that stress may reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant. To conduct the study, the researchers charted the ovulation cycles of 274 English women aged 18-40 years who were trying to conceive, on the sixth day of their cycle, each woman collected a sample of their saliva, which was subsequently tested for a substance called alpha-amylase (the saliva samples were also analyzed for cortisol). Each woman took part in the study until she became pregnant, or at the end of six menstrual cycles. The researchers showed that the women who had higher levels of alpha-amylase were less likely to get pregnant than were women with lower levels of the substance. Alpha-amylase is secreted into saliva by the parotid gland, the largest of the salivary glands. Although alpha-amylase digests starch, in recent years many researchers have used it as a barometer of the body’s response to physical or psychological stress. The substance is secreted when the nervous system produces catecholamines, compounds that initiate a type of stress response.
Can Stress Cause Miscarriage?
A 2017 review of studies links prenatal stress to increased risk of miscarriage. Researchers found that women who had major negative life events or psychological stress exposure were twice as likely to have early miscarriages. The same review found a link between workplace stress and miscarriage, which definitely brings to light the importance of making adjustments and working with your employer. This may be especially necessary if you work a night shift. Furthermore, the review also mentioned that healthcare providers tend to downplay the risk stress can cause in pregnancy, perhaps to reassure pregnant women and not cause further stress.
Finally, a study lead by Theoharis C. Theohardies, MD, PhD, of the Tufts University School of Medicine, found that of 23 women, those who previously had multiple miscarriages had significantly higher levels of CRH and another hormone called urocortin in the tissues of their fetuses compared to women who had miscarried once or had abortions. High amounts of these stress hormones are only found in uterine mast cells, leading Theohardies to theorise that these mast cells are being activated and releasing tryptase which then destroys tissue and prevents the production of membranes to develop the embryo – disrupting the architecture of the placenta that feeds the baby.
About the Author
Fiona Boulton has been a fertility expert since 2007. She helps women and couples to achieve faster fertility success with her coveted Fertile Lifestyle Course. The Course covers the 6 essential pillars to supporting fertility with a unique epigenetic protocol. To find out if the Fertile Lifestyle Course is right for you, book a no obligation, confidential consultation with Fiona or her team today: http://fertilelifestyleconsult.com/