The journey to motherhood can be a long and bumpy road. Some might even say that it’s less a journey and more of a race. Women are not only racing their own biological clocks, but also society’s preconceptions, the simultaneous trajectory of their peers who seem not to be struggling, and their own burning desire to start a family already. When viewed through this lens, it certainly sounds like the most anxiety-inducing experience you can sign up for. This observation is confirmed in a multitude of studies, but most notably in a study of 488 American women where women on a fertility journey felt as anxious or depressed as those diagnosed with cancer, hypertension or recovering from a heart attack. In other words, they were experiencing anxiety levels on par with having a life-threatening disease. That’s a lot of stress.
The truth is that what is supposed to be the most joyful experience of our lives has become something akin to a terminal illness when what we know to be a common biological process simply doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as efficiently or as easily as we wish.
The problem is not the actual pressure and stress of conception. After all, we can get through many stressful situations unscathed. The challenge is that this situation, unlike a work problem or relationship struggle requires that our bodies be operating at the optimal level, and instead they are being ravaged by stress….and the stress is unrelenting.
The effects stress has on the body are diverse and pervasive, and they are interrupting the exact biological processes that need to be in good health for pregnancy to occur and persist. The main problem with stress in general is that it causes our bodies to pump large doses of cortisol into the blood. This hormone is vastly beneficial when we encounter a giant bear in our backyard, but when it comes to the sort of low-grade stress that is the conception journey, it’s actually very damaging.
Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone, so when it rushes in, the body knows to pause the less urgent biological processes and focus on the here and now – fight or flight. Either one of those options requires that a lot of energy be available immediately. This means that things like digestion and reproduction are filed away for later. But if you’re smack in the middle of a conception journey, “later” is not the memo you want to send to your reproductive system.
Let’s get into some of what cortisol disrupts when it’s around. First off, it raises blood sugar. This can be problematic for anyone because it means the cells might not be getting the glucose they need to do their respective jobs, but it’s also even worse for those struggling with PCOS who already have insulin resistance issues. Last week, we talked about gut health and its effect on the thyroid. Cortisol directly impacts gut function and can throw this axis out of balance causing all sorts of problems. Stress also can lead to weight gain because caloric intake tends to go up when cortisol goes up. Even a little weight loss is usually very helpful in increasing fertility outcomes, so weight gain is going to have the opposite effect.
Cortisol also has a significant impact on ovulation itself. It decreases levels of luteinizing hormone, the hormone responsible for triggering ovulation, and it increases prolactin, the hormone that pauses ovulation while breastfeeding. When all of this cortisol is being produced, the body can have trouble keeping up. Progesterone is made from the same components as cortisol, so when it can’t keep up, it tends to just steal what it needs from the progesterone present in the body. This is detrimental to someone focused on conceiving because progesterone is essential in ensuring that the embryo implants in the uterine lining and that the pregnancy is supported.
So regardless of where the stress is coming from, whether it be from the actual conception process or from somewhere totally unrelated, stress and the resulting cortisol are directly responsible for an increase in the physiological factors that can impede fertility. This means that if there was an effective way to reduce the stress and curb the cortisol, fertility could be improved.
Enter meditation, a practice in which the goal is to focus on the present moment only and to train awareness away from distracting thought. There are many forms of meditation ranging in difficulty. These can include things like guided meditation, isolated contemplation, or moving meditations like tai chi and yoga. The goal in these practices is to focus inward, letting thoughts come and go, as they will, but allowing yourself no attachment to the thoughts. This type of practice not only strengthens our ability to focus, it has been proven to remove accumulated stress, increase energy and improve overall well being. There have also been clinical methods of mindfulness based on these concepts that have been shown to have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects.
Observable physiological benefits can be seen as a direct result of meditation. Blood pressure is reduced, chronic pain is eliminated, depression is mitigated, and memory is improved. Meditation increases blood flow to the brain making the brain more efficient; blood pressure goes down, as does heart rate, cortisol and epinephrine.
There was randomized study in which subjects were divided into two groups. One group meditated while the other group received health education. The meditating group had a 48% risk reduction in death, heart attacks and strokes, so there is a definite correlation between mediation and reduced stress. When stress is reduced, the body functions as it should.
The conception journey is hard enough; there is no reason to make it even harder by encouraging the body to work against us. Stress may be unavoidable, but the answer is simple. It just involves something that we’re not used to, and that’s sitting still and going inward. Meditation may take some practice, but the results of our efforts can be life changing.
Publishing, Harvard Health. “The Psychological Impact of Infertility and Its Treatment.” Harvard Health, May 2009, www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/The-psychological-impact-of-infertility-and-its-treatment.
Marchand, W. R. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and Zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18(4), 233-252.
Sharma H. Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu. 2015;36(3):233-237. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.182756
Rooney KL, Domar AD. The relationship between stress and infertility. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2018;20(1):41-47.