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Cycle of Stress

Boston Globe,  Sept 13, 2010
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It’s a story that rings familiar: A couple tries and tries — frustration surging — to have a baby, finally deciding to adopt. Then, lo and behold, the woman receives the news that once proved elusive: You’re pregnant. Maybe, armchair psychiatrists have long opined, it has something to do with a cloud of stress dissipating.

Or consider women who swear that the fatigue, bloat, and irritability that herald a menstrual period are magnified when life’s anxieties rage with particular ferocity.

For generations, such anecdotes existed largely in the realm of accepted wisdom, evoking dismissive entreaties to women to “just relax.’’ And studies of reproductive health sometimes consisted of little more than asking infertile couples to jot down their levels of stress. “We thought there has to be something better than that,’’ said Germaine Buck Louis, a top scientist at the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

Now, researchers at her agency are opening a wider window onto the fraught relationship between stress and women’s reproductive health — research that could one day lead to use of saliva tests for stress and better methods for muting it.

Two studies released last month by federal scientists offer tantalizing clues. One suggests that elevated levels of a stress-related enzyme might predict whether a woman will have difficulty getting pregnant. The other shows that a wave of stress in the days before a woman’s period may act like an accelerant for premenstrual symptoms.

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