Stress is a normal part of our body’s processes and can actually be beneficial to us. Stress can increase our motivation, get us out of dangerous situations quickly, boosts our immune system and also helps improve our memory. This beneficial stress is known as eu-stress, and it’s when our body and mind is placed under short-term stress.
However long-term stress has been shown to have the opposite effect, decreasing our energy levels, immune system, memory and also reducing fertility in men and women. Long-term stress can come from stressful jobs, relationships, malnutrition, long-term infections such as bacterial or viral infections, and just general busy-ness aka burning the candle at both ends.
So what happens when someone is stressed:
A hormone called ACTH is released from the brain and sends a message to our adrenal glands. Our adrenal glands are 2 pyramid shaped glands that sit on top of our kidneys that are responsible for secreting stress hormones. Once the adrenals have received their ACTH message from the brain, they release cortisol (amongst others) which causes us to go into the sympathetic nervous system, also known as fight-or-flight. Our blood pressure and heart rate increases, our sight and hearing become sharper and sugar is released into the bloodstream. This provides us with the ability and energy to react to the stressor. After the threat has passed, ACTH production decreases, and how stress hormones decreased down.
If there is long-term stress, this system stays mildly activated and that is where the trouble begins.
Stress, hormones and fertility
High levels of cortisol have been shown to interfere with the Hypothalamus-Pituitary- Gonad axis (HPG- axis) which suppress the production of testosterone in men and prevents ovulation in women, and therefore suppressing oestrogen and progesterone production.
High stress has also been shown to cause testicular and ovarian atrophy, or basically cause your testicles or ovaries to shrink. Yes, men, your testicles SHRINK.
For men specifically, stress affects them in regards to fertility by
- Decreasing in testosterone production
- Can cause destruction of sperm cells and affect sperm production
- Reducing mitochondria in cells (energy powerhouses) and increase oxidative stress.
- And did I mention your testicles can shrink??
- Decreased Luteneizing hormone (LH) which prevents ovulation. No ovulation= no progesterone
- Affects egg maturation and can inhibit this process and/ or cause poor egg quality. Oxidative stress can also increase within the ovary causing poor egg quality.
- Increased blood sugars, which can lead to insulin resistance. This increases inflammation in the body
- Block oestrogen induced uterine growth and differentiation, affecting the endometrial health and therefore implantation of an embryo
- If trying to conceive, cortisol can disrupt our immune system affecting implantation and viability in early pregnancy
Signs and symptoms that stress may be affecting you are:
- Racing heartbeat
- No ovulation
- Low progesterone
- PMS- teary, irritable, anger
- Prone to infections
- Muscle wasting
- Inability to fall and/ or stay asleep
- Inability to conceive.
If you think stress is affecting you and your hormones, blood tests that may help to assess the effect of stress on your body include:
- Cortisol- taken first thing in the morning and possibly also taken in the afternoon
- Women- FSH, and LH taken at Day 3 of your cycle along with Oestradiol and Progesterone taken 7 days post-ovulation or any time if you currently aren’t ovulating or having a period.
- Thyroid hormone -TSH, T4, T3 as cortisol also impacts on thyroid function.
- Men- testosterone .
Some steps you can take if you feel stress is affecting you are:
- Change your mindset around stress: Really ask yourself what is stressing you out? Is it something you are going to be worried in a month or year’s time? If not, then is it really worth stressing over. If it is, what adjustments can you make to the situation that might make it better? Ie speaking to that person, taking on fewer tasks etc.
- Other ways we can change our mindset around stress is through meditation. Meditation is just exercise for the brain which means your first session may not go so well. This exercise is teaching your brain to stay present and not let it run off into a million unlikely-to-happen scenarios. For newbies, I like the app Headspace. Do their 10-day free trial and then I like an app called Insight Timer for free meditations.
- Other great stress relieving activities are breathing exercises- like these here https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/
- Mindful walking in nature (no phone or other distractions)
- Listening to music,
- Trying yoga, tai chi, qi gong and Reiki
Herbal medicines that can help when stressed are a group of herbs called adaptogens. They help your body to cope with daily stressor modulating cortisol output- Some favourites are Withania, Rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, Rehmannia and Holy basil.
Another group of herbs that can be good when there is a lot of nervous tension are Nervines. Passionflower, St Johns Wort and skullcap are favourites. Please always speak to a qualified naturopath or herbalist for a prescription as some herbs interact with medications and your body needs to be assessed for an individual prescription.
My favourite nutrients for stress are magnesium, B-vitamin complex, glycine and zinc to help calm the nervous system.
It's important to recognise that stress is not something your body can cope with long-term and has consequences to your body. If you need some help navigating stress and your hormones I am here to help!
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