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Does stress impact your fertility?

Robbie Puddick
Written by

Robbie Puddick

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

7 min read
Last updated May 2024

Jump to: How to lower cortisol levels | Make stress your friend | Mediate | Access nature | Take home message

Chronic perceived stress primarily impacts your chances of pregnancy and female fertility through the over-secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol seems to affect female fertility in three ways:

  1. High cortisol levels inhibit the hypothalamus (an area of the brain) and the pituitary gland, which is responsible for the production and release of essential sex hormones, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH).
  2. Excess cortisol can be converted into androgens like testosterone. Too much testosterone can disrupt the balance of sex hormones and decrease fertility.
  3. High cortisol levels can worsen insulin resistance, leading to excess testosterone production and other health complications impacting fertility.

These effects of cortisol on female fertility have been shown to reduce the chances of pregnancy in women receiving IVF treatment. A recent study with 88 women undergoing IVF treatment showed that the women’s cortisol levels who achieved pregnancy (48/88 – 54%) were 26% lower than those who didn’t (40/88 – 46%).

Fortunately, through changes to your lifestyle, you can lower your cortisol levels, manage your stress, and boost your fertility and chances of pregnancy.

How to lower cortisol levels

There are many ways to lower cortisol levels and below, we’ve listed our top three evidence-based ways to achieve this:

  1. Make stress your friend: That’s right, evidence suggests that people who can embrace stress and use it to their advantage have lower cortisol levels, live longer, and have stronger social connections with their loved ones.
  2. Meditate: Meditation has been shown to lower your risk of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, improve the structure of your brain, and lower cortisol levels.
  3. Access nature: Research has shown a strong association between how much time people spend outside and our cortisol levels. It seems accessing green areas and being exposed to natural sunlight can effectively lower stress and cortisol levels.

At Second Nature, you’re supported by a registered nutritionist or dietitian who’s by your side to help you reduce your stress levels, embrace calm, and lower cortisol levels.

Click here to take our health quiz and join over 150,000 people like Carla who’ve joined Second Nature and seen improvements in their relationship with stress and sleep.

Otherwise, keep reading as we look deeper into three ways you can improve your stress levels, lower cortisol, and improve your fertility.

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1) Make stress your friend

Stress is a complicated topic. We’ve previously been told that stress is bad for our health and that we must reduce it at all costs. While managing stress and ensuring a positive work-life balance is essential, we might also benefit from embracing the positive side of stress.

A study investigated the link between perceived stress, hair cortisol levels (a reliable marker of long-term cortisol levels), and psychological resilience. The results indicated that higher cortisol levels were only associated with perceived stress in people with low psychological resilience and emotional stability.

Individuals with high stress levels, psychological resilience, and emotional stability had low cortisol levels.

This finding has been supported by other recent evidence showing similar results. All of this suggests that our approach to stressful situations and how we manage the ups and downs that life throws at us can significantly impact how our body responds.

So how can you make stress your friend? Positive affirmations

Our brains are wired to think negatively, and because we’ve been conditioned to believe stress is bad for us, the first thoughts that come to mind when we feel stressed are often negative.

However, research has shown that we can train our brain to think more positively, ultimately changing how our body reacts to stress. The next time you feel stressed or have strong emotions, repeat some of the following affirmations:

  • My heart is racing because it’s pumping oxygen around my body to prepare me to perform.
  • This situation is stressful, but my body will give me the courage to respond, learn, and adapt.
  • Life is tough now, and I have a lot on my plate, but I have the strength to carry on. I have the perspective to reflect on what I do have rather than what I don’t.

Key points:

  • We’ve been told for years to avoid stress at all costs, but recent research has shown that learning how to embrace it can improve our health and lower cortisol levels.
  • Research suggests that stress only increases your long-term cortisol levels if you perceive stress to be negative, have low resilience, and have low emotional stability.
  • Positive affirmations are a great way to train your brain to respond more positively to stress and lower your cortisol levels.

2) Meditate

While embracing stress can positively impact how you manage it in the long term, it also helps to embrace opportunities to have some downtime. Meditation is a great way to do this, as evidence suggests it can lower cortisol levels and improve your relationship with stress.

Mindfulness meditation is the art of paying attention on purpose and without judgement. This typically involves sitting still with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath.

Research on meditation has expanded in the last 10-15 years, with multiple studies showing positive effects on mental health conditions, cognition, and brain structure.

Unsurprisingly, one area of focus has been the connection between meditation and stress. A study investigated the impact of 18 sessions of meditation on hair cortisol levels in young students compared to a control group with no intervention.

The results showed that hair cortisol levels dropped by 10%, while they rose in the control group. Similar results have been replicated in a study using blood cortisol levels in students in Thailand, which showed a 19.6% reduction after a meditation intervention of four hours a day for four days.

How can I get into a meditation habit?

Thanks to the introduction of popular apps and videos on YouTube, meditation has never been so accessible. Here are three great apps you can download today to help guide you through your meditation practice and help you turn it into a habit:

  • Balance (currently offering 1-year free subscription)
  • Headspace
  • Calm

Key points:

  • Meditation is the art of paying attention on purpose and without judgement.
  • The practice of meditation involves sitting still with your eyes closed while you pay close attention to your breath.
  • Research suggests that even short-term meditation interventions can lower hair cortisol levels.
  • Balance, Headspace, and Calm are three great apps that can help you turn meditation into a regular habit.

3) Access nature

We evolved in the wild, and it’s suggested that the calming effect that being in natural spaces can have is related to our evolutionary relationship with these surroundings.

Open water assured us that we could drink. Wooded areas assured us we’d have protection. Open grasslands promised the potential for fauna to hunt and plants to forage. And while we can’t all live in a national park, research suggests we can achieve the positive effects of nature in smaller doses or even a visit to a local park.

A review of 43 observational studies investigating the impact of spending time outdoors found strong associations between outdoor activities – particularly those with green space – such as gardening, nature viewing, and exercising with lower self-reported stress and blood cortisol levels.

This was supported by a study that measured the hair cortisol levels in 85 individuals and tracked their behaviours over the course of 6-months to see what impact those activities would have on their cortisol levels.

The study found a strong correlation between the amount of time spent in nature and hair cortisol levels. So the more time the participants spent in nature, the lower their cortisol levels.

Interestingly, the sun might be playing a role in this relationship. A recent study recruited 9 participants who all completed the following exposures:

  1. Natural sunlight
  2. Artificial UV radiation
  3. Spending time in darkness

They measured hair cortisol in the participants before and after the interventions. They found that natural sunlight and artificial UV exposure similarly lowered hair cortisol (54% & 75%). At the same time, the darkness intervention experienced no changes.

While research in this area is still in its infancy, and more intervention trials are needed to investigate the relationship between nature and cortisol – it seems that spending time outdoors, in green spaces, and in natural environments can reduce cortisol levels and improve our health.

Key points:

  • It’s suggested that our evolutionary history and connection to wild places may explain the calming effect of nature.
  • Studies have shown an association between time spent outdoors – particularly in green spaces – and levels of stress and blood cortisol levels.
  • Research has also shown an association between time spent in nature and hair cortisol levels, a more reliable marker of long-term cortisol levels.
  • It’s suggested that natural sunlight plays a role in this relationship as it’s been shown to lower hair cortisol levels.

Take home message

Many factors are outside your control regarding your fertility; sometimes, it’s just the luck of the draw. However, good evidence shows that high cortisol levels can negatively affect female fertility and overall health and well-being.

Changing your relationship with stress, meditating, and accessing nature are all evidence-based ways you can improve your stress management, lower cortisol levels, and hopefully see an improvement in your fertility.

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