What is the stress connection? We all know intrinsically that being super stressed out is not good for reproduction (which can become especially frustrating when the major source of stress in your life is not getting pregnant in the first place). Obviously, when you are stress out you are less likely to be “in the mood”, but how exactly does stress impact our physiology so profoundly?
Your body’s chemical and neurological stress response system controls pretty much all your biological functions. Its primary job is to balance survival with thriving. For our purposes, we are going to discuss the two primary stress response systems of your body: the Autonomic Nervous System and the Endocrine (Hormone) System.
Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is split up into two sections based on function: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). The SNS is well known for its “fight-or-flight” response and is responsible for your “survive” functions. The PSNS is responsible for all your “rest-and-digest” functions and helps you “thrive” once the threat that the SNS was dealing with is over. You want to have both halves your ANS in working order. When you are in a threatening situation, you want your SNS to kick in and commit all its resources to getting you out of that conundrum. You want it to send blood and fuel to your big mover muscles, dilate your pupils, and rev up the engine so you can react and move quickly. At this point (when you are face-to-face with the bear), your body doesn’t care too much your digestive, reproductive, or immune functions, because they are irrelevant unless you survive the next fifteen minutes.
Your Sympathetic Nervous System is not built to be on 100% of the time. It should rev up during a short-duration threatening situation and then settle back down and let the PSNS do its thing. The problem that is far too common in our brilliant, modern-day, fast-paced society is that we live in the Sympathetic Zone. We are go, go, go all the time, feeding ourselves artificial stimulants when our own physiology can’t keep up, and never taking time to recuperate. Our body perceives this inability to switch-off as danger and responds accordingly.
When the SNS is stimulated (whether that threat is chemical, physical or emotional, real or perceived), it activates the limbic system and begins a cascade of chemical reactions. These chemical reactions begin in your body’s hormonal stress response system known as the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis. This HPA Axis has ties and influences on all of your other endocrine systems, including your reproductive hormones. To make a very beautiful, long, complex story short, when the SNS perceives a threat, it sends signals down to the adrenal glands to secrete more of the hormones epinephrine (or adrenaline) and cortisol. These hormones flow through your blood sending messages to the rest of your body that the time to act is now!
Excess adrenal hormones interfere with the production of the reproductive hormones FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and LH (Leutinizing Hormone) in both men and women. Low levels of FSH and LH end up lowering testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. All of these hormones are absolutely crucial to maintain a regular menstrual cycle and facilitate conception and implantation. Chronic physical or emotional stress can even make you stop ovulation or menstruating.
Cortisol has a major roll to play in your immune system and inflammation profiles. This is not the focus of this post, but know that chronic infections and inappropriate immune reactions can also lead to infertility.
Once the threat has lifted and the bear has gone back to her cave, the Parasympathetic Nervous System can predominate once more. Her priorities are digesting and absorbing nutrients for our body, maintaining immune system balance, and making babies. If we send the signal to our body that we are out of danger and now is a pretty good time for reproduction, she will respond by sending resources to these crucial elements of health, fertility, and vitality.
We are never going to create a life void of stress. These physiological mechanisms are here to help you, not hinder you. Most women are able to handle a certain of stress without impacting fertility. It is the over-riding imbalance that gets us into trouble. For thriving fertility, digestive health, and immune system health, we need to shift toward a Parasympathetic Nervous System predominance and allow our bodies to recuperate, restore, and regenerate from the high demands that we place upon them. We need to give our endocrine organs a chance to refuel and find balance. In the next part of this blog, we will discuss some of the ways that you can get started on encouraging this balance.