In 2018, a new study found that women who experienced higher levels of stress had lower rates of conception, but that men who experienced the same levels of stress did not. While stress alone does not directly cause infertility, heightened stress levels can negatively contribute to your chances of successful conception.
WHAT ARE STRESSORS?
If we perceive a threat (a stressor) to our wellbeing in some way, our body activates its sympathetic nervous system and our “fight-or-flight” response to help us deal with this. As part of this response, the adrenal glands release a surge of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. While useful in the short term, if our stress response remains triggered for too long, the high levels of cortisol circulating in the body can suppress the immune system, cause the breakdown of bodily tissue (known as a catabolic effect), and even lead to emotional problems like anxiety – all of which can affect the ability to conceive.
Although we can’t necessarily control certain stressors, we can make choices to avoid adding to our overall stress levels. Many everyday activities stimulate our sympathetic nervous system including over-exercising, drinking coffee, eating sugar, and going to bed too late without winding down to name a few. By being mindful of the foods we eat, what exercises we do, and creating better sleeping patterns, we can reduce our stress levels.
HOW CAN EXERCISE HELP?
Scheduling your fitness routine to help decrease your stress load means your cortisol levels will fall, and your body can find a better hormonal balance, putting you in a stronger position both physically and mentally when trying to conceive.
TRAIN AROUND YOUR CYCLE
Your menstrual cycle is your own personal, internal barometer, and a great indication of what your hormones are doing and when. Throughout the month our hormones levels vary and as a result, our bodies crave certain types of exercise. It’s as if your body is transitioning through the four seasons each month: in spring and summer it’s light outside, so you feel strong and everything is growing; in autumn and winter, it’s darker, animals are hibernating, and so you start to wind down and move less. If you use this analogy to shape your workout choices, then spring and summer are the ideal times to take on high-intensity training and heavy strength work. However, in autumn and winter, opting for less intense workouts or doing more pilates or yoga can all support the types of movement that your body is naturally craving. Working with your body and your changing hormone levels will not only help you to workout in the most efficient and effective way, but will also decrease levels of stress in the body as you are not putting your body under any undue strain.
|Menstruation Phase||Week 1 – Menstruation||WINTER||Lower impact: yoga, meditation, stretch, pilates|
|Follicular Phase||Week 2 – Heading to ovulation||SPRING||Higher impact: strength, HIIT, cardio|
|Ovulatory Phase||Week 3 – After ovulation||SUMMER||Higher impact: strength, HIIT, cardio|
|Luteal Phase||Week 4 – Week just before ovulation||AUTUMN||Lower impact: yoga, meditation, stretch, pilates|
STICK TO THE 2:1 RULE ON A WEEKLY BASIS
Exercise can be a stressor on the body, and so too much at an intense level can be counterproductive to your health and wellbeing. However, not moving your body at all can also have a negative impact on physical and mental wellbeing, and so it’s all about finding the right balance. Variety is key, and you should try to mix higher impact HIIT, cardio and strength workouts with lower impact yoga, pilates and barre workouts, aiming for a 2:1 ratio of high-impact:low-impact workouts each week. However, intensity is relative to your own fitness and strength levels, so it is important to listen to your own body to create a sustainable fitness routine that works for you.
AVOID EXCESS PRESSURE ON THE CORE
Many stereotypical exercises associated with strengthening the core such as crunches, planks and sit-ups can put additional pressure on the core and pelvic floor muscles. Your pelvic floor muscles are there to hold up the bladder, bowels and uterus, but they are also there for functional reasons, so the core and pelvic floor muscles must be worked together in order to gain strength in the correct way. It is valuable to focus on strengthening these muscles when trying to conceive, as this will help you to learn how to relax and control these muscles, which is great preparation for giving birth. A lot of core exercises focus on the shortening of the muscles (we shorten the abdominals when we sit up or crunch), but when trying to conceive or pregnant, it’s more valuable to focus on kegel exercises and to relate these to breathing practices to increase strength without putting too much strain on the body, especially the core.
EXPERIENCE YOGA IN A NEW LIGHT
Yoga has many physical benefits and can help to improve your strength, balance, and flexibility. However, it is yoga’s ability to help you relax, feel more energised, and improve your sleep patterns, which is key to helping you to manage stress. Yoga contains many exercises that open our chest, heart, or hips, and these opening postures can have an incredibly emotive impact on the body. When we are stressed or anxious, we often close down our movements – rounding our shoulders or sinking and slouching in our posture. By placing your body into opening positions, you can lift the weight of any stress and anxiety from the body, and instinctively shift your mindset and focus to a more positive place.
WHAT SIMPLE STEPS CAN YOU TAKE NOW?
Implementing all of these suggestions in one go might feel overwhelming, which is why it’s all about making changes a little at a time. For your first step, maybe schedule in a relaxing bath, try a short yoga class, or perhaps take 10 minutes to listen to some calming music or an audio book before you go to bed. If meditation works for you, then this can also be a fantastic way to calm your sympathetic nervous system (there’s plenty of great meditation apps out there if you want to give this a try!).
These are my top tips to help you reduce your stress load and find better hormonal balance:
- Avoid too many sugary foods and caffeine
- Don’t attempt too much exercise
- Vary your workouts
- Try to get as much sleep as you can
- Make sure you are drinking enough water (dehydration can trigger your stress response)
- Reduce any unnecessary emotional/mental stress
- Include meditation and yoga in your fitness routine
JOIN SIOBHAN FOR A FREE LIVE ZOOM WORKOUT FOCUSED ON EXERCISE PRACTICES WHILST TRYING TO CONCEIVE ON TUESDAY 2ND FEBRUARY 2021: SIGN UP HERE.
Wesselink K A, Hatch E E, Rothman K J, Weuve J L, Aschengrau A, Song R J, and Wise L A, ‘Perceived Stress and Fecundability: A Preconception Cohort Study of North American Couples’, American Journal of Epidemiology, volume 187:12, (December 2018), pages 2662–2671.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Siobhan Middleton is a fully qualified personal trainer, movement specialist and nutritionist who specialises in pre and postnatal fitness and applied functional science. She is passionate about helping women to improve their overall health and fitness levels and grow their body confidence.