When things get stressful, the human body back-burners a lot of otherwise critical systems in order to focus its efforts on the production of the hormone cortisol. Why? Because cortisol, also known as the “stress” hormone, gives the body the boost it needs to survive. Among other things, it increases glucose (read: sugars) in the bloodstream, helps your brain use those sugars more efficiently, and aids in getting tissue repair going if needed.
This whole process is super useful during, say, a saber tooth tiger attack. “Imagine if you’re trying to run away from a tiger. Your body doesn’t want you to be menstruating or ovulating—it wants to save all your hormones to keep the cortisol functioning so you can run faster,” says fertility reproductive endocrinologist Jane L. Frederick, MD. “It’s really a survival hormone.”
These days, however, we’re generally no longer running from imminent death. Yet our bodies often think we are due to the chronic stress endemic of modern life. If this stress isn’t managed, its constant triggering of cortisol can wreak major havoc on immunity, digestion and, as too many people have experienced first-hand, reproduction.
The “flatlining” effect of cortisol on fertility
Nicole Jardim, certified women’s health and functional nutrition coach, says that when the body produces too much cortisol over long periods of time, that cortisol has a “dampening effect” on the secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When GnRH runs low, the hypothalamus—the body’s hormone control center—fails to send the right signals to the pituitary gland, which in turn fails to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), which are needed to stimulate the ovaries into ovulation. If by some chance the body is still able to produce enough FSH in the scenario, cortisol runs defense again by blocking the ovary from receiving it. “If it’s able to do that, then your follicles don’t get stimulated and you don’t have ovulation, which you need in order to be able to get pregnant naturally,” Jardim says. (Dr. Frederick describes this as hormone “flatlining.”)
Generally, this functioning is a good thing; experts theorize that this is the body’s way of protecting a person from yet another stressful and potentially life-threatening experience (read: pregnancy). But for people suffering from chronic stress, the cortisol-fertility connection can potentially make it more difficult to get pregnant.
To be clear, one stressful day isn’t likely to disrupt your entire system. However, one stressful month—a death in the family, a difficult work project, etc.—can potentially shut down the baby factory for at least a cycle. This disruption can look like missed or irregular periods, or worse-than-usual PMS, as the lack of progesterone from missed ovulation can contribute to drastic mood dips in the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle, says Jardim.
Some people are more prone to these hormonal burnouts due to having lower stress thresholds, adds Jardim. “It’s unique for each of us depending on our genetics, our current life situation, and our life circumstances when we were younger, because childhood trauma definitely impacts [your resilience],” she says.
Encouraging optimal cortisol balance
Stress management is generally so crucial for overall health and well-being, but Dr. Frederick and Jardim both insist that it’s particularly crucial for fertility and reproductive health. “I’ve found that if we can get our nervous system to calm down on a daily basis, that is tremendously beneficial,” Jardim says. “It takes a bit of practice and experimentation to find out what works, but there are multiple things—e.g. any kind of breathing exercise just helps tremendously, whether you’re doing that in yoga or you’re doing that through meditation.”
“One of the ways I recommend patients relieve [stress] is with acupuncture,” says Dr. Frederick. “Many studies have shown it to benefit the endocrine system, and it helps to calm down a stressed body—when you stimulate certain points on the body, it can lead to the release of feel-good hormones which have a healing effect on somebody who feels really wired or really stressed out.”
Dr. Frederick also recommends “optimal nutrition“, which she defines as a balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fat, as well as regular exercise. She says DHEA supplements can help, too, as DHEA is precursor to sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone and thus can support healthy hormone levels. However, she cautions that such supplements should not be self-prescribed. “I recommend that you this supplement under the guide of a doctor or nutritionist, someone who’s knowledgeable,” she says.
Even if you’re not trying to get pregnant, and don’t exactly view skipped periods as a bad thing, Dr. Frederick warns against letting your body crash out from cortisol. “There are many reasons you don’t want to be chronically stressed. It’s not just about your fertility—your immune system drops and you get sick more often, your digestive tract gets imbalanced when your cortisol is high, etc.,” she says. “Being stressed constantly is bad for your overall health.”
As Taylor Swift might say, you need to calm down: Try human joy pill Jonathan Van Ness’s stress-busting yoga routine or just giving someone (preferably JVN) a hug.
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