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What You Need to Know about Stress, Fertility, and Pregnancy

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a blog by Kim Griffiths, February 21, 2013

Countless studies have sought to prove or disprove the relationship between stress and infertility or stress and pregnancy outcomes. Some say stress can impact fertility, can lead to pregnancy complications, and can cause behavioral problems in the child (exposed to stress hormones in utero) down the road. Others claim moderate amounts of stress do not reduce a woman’s chances of conceiving and do not harm the child in any way.

However, there is a large body of evidence out there that says stress hormones in the body are not good for our health and fertility, and let’s face it- no one likes to feel stressed.

One such study out of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that even stressful relationships can increase production of inflammatory proteins like prostaglandins and cytokines. These inflammatory markers cause inflammation in the body which not only leads to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, but infertility and pregnancy complications as well. Those who experienced positive encounters with friends, family, and spouses, demonstrated lower levels of these proteins. Interactions were tracked with journal entry recordings and cheek swabs to measure stress-linked protein levels.

Aside from the serious risk of cardiovascular events and cancer, the inflammation caused by overproduction of prostaglandins and cytokines are leading contributors to female factor infertility conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. They also inhibit healthy sperm production in males.

Without a doubt, the stress of infertility does not dissipate the minute a fertility patient gets pregnant. In many cases it takes several months for her to accept that the fertility treatment was successful. Women who become pregnant after infertility often report feeling anxious over the risk of miscarriage or pregnancy loss after struggling to conceive. I speak from personal experience on this one: subchorionic hematoma, incompetent cervix, preterm labor, and pre-eclampsia. Were they caused by stress? Who knows...but these conditions didn't make me feel less stressed or more confident that my twins would arrive safely.

In pregnant women, stress hormones can lead to premature labor, fetal growth restriction, depression and anxiety. Research suggests that maternal stress during pregnancy increases the risk of behavioral issues in the child later in life. One recent study showed that even paternal stress can increase the risk of behavioral health issues in offspring presumably because the mother stresses when her partner is stressed.

Though the jury is still out on the true impact of stress on fertility and pregnancy, it seems safe to say that reducing stress is best- if not for improving our chances at conceiving and delivering a healthy pregnancy, then at least to feel better through the process.