By Andrea Bartels CNP NNCP RNT
07 Jul 2021
You may think you’ve gotten used to it by now, but the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our bodies with the need to continually adapt to new guidelines, schedules and lifestyles. With those demands comes increased cortisol secretion. Stress is what increases the output of cortisol, one of the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands to give us mental and physical energy by increasing blood sugar and blood pressure---which are both vital for energy production and for our vital organs’ blood supply. While a lot has been said about the major side effects of chronic cortisol exposure---such as hypertension, insulin resistance and obesity—not much attention has been given to its effects on fertility.
Unfortunately for those wishing to conceive, when the body perceives stress, pro-creation drops to the bottom of the body’s priority list because it is not perceived as essential for health. Stress leads to something called ‘progesterone steal’. This means that during stress, the body will make cortisol at the expense of the female hormone, progesterone. The resulting progesterone deficiency can reduce fertility for a few reasons: For one, the female becomes estrogen-dominant, and two, because without adequate progesterone, the uterine wall cannot be stabilized in preparation for a fertilized egg to implant there. Third, cortisol plugs up the progesterone receptors, giving any circulating progesterone no chance to park in cells (and work its magic!). So cortisol can have both a direct and an indirect negative impact on fertility.
You may ask, “how do I know if my progesterone is low?” Symptoms can include a menstrual cycle shorter than 25 days, irritability, insomnia, breast swelling, belly bloat and more. Meanwhile, since the impact of stress on female hormone balance can lead to anovulatory menstrual cycles—that is, a cycle in which no egg is released from the ovary—this can be another symptom of stress wreaking havoc on your hormones. Sometimes an anovulatory cycle results in a skipped period; at other times, the period still occurs but can make a female incorrectly assume she ovulated. It can be confusing! That’s why it’s important to keep track of emotional, physical symptoms and talk to your primary healthcare provider for an assessment of your hormone status and fertility concerns.
The Effect of Stress on Nutritional Status
Stress can get us eating unhealthy “comfort foods” to make us feel better, distract us or reward us during difficult times. As you might guess, junk foods like fried and sugary processed foods don’t support fertility very well! Stress also increases our nutritional needs by increasing our metabolic rate, using up nutrients at a faster rate; it also may limit nutrient absorption as stress tends to reduce the output of stomach acid in most people. This in turn affects the rest of the digestive process, reducing the ability of digestive enzymes to break our foods down into their simplest components. Only then can vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids be absorbed into the body.
Lower Your Cortisol
Vitamin C has been shown to reduce cortisol levels at just 1000 milligrams three times per day. It even also helps raise progesterone, at just 750 milligrams per day. Although virtually all fruits and vegetables contain some amount of the vitamin, it’s important to note supplemental vitamin C is needed to provide the amounts seen to be effective in these studies. Vitamin C is water-soluble and needs constant replenishment, so taking a slow-release supplement of this nutrient is a good idea to keep your levels more consistent.
The Nurses’ Health Study II is a large study that began in the late 1970s that’s still running, with nearly three hundred thousand participants and counting. This substantial study has found that women who had a higher intake of vitamins B-1, B-2, B-3, B-6 and B12 were associated lower incidence of infertility that was due to ovulatory problems. Since stress also increases demands for B complex vitamins, including the folic acid required for healthy fetal development, it make sense to take a good quality B complex with biologically active B vitamins to cover your bases.
The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D also appears to play a role in reproductive function in both females and males. A study published in 2017 concluded that vitamin D supplementation improved sperm motility in vitamin D-deficient male subjects with infertility of unknown cause. While the mechanism is not crystal clear in women (outside of those with the condition PCOS), it has been shown to benefit female fertility as well. In any case, it’s wise to make sure you are not vitamin D-deficient by taking a supplement since foods contain little, and since the nutrient has well-understood roles in immune, bone and mental health as well.
One of the most studied key nutrients that impacts fertility is zinc. This metallic mineral plays a key role in egg maturation, and deficiencies in the nutrient are associated with decreased fertility, increased incidence of miscarriage, and chromosomal damage—the latter which is linked to birth defects. Babies born to moms with low zinc status have been found to have lower birth weight, more birth defects, and a less developed nervous system. We also know that stress uses up zinc faster, that it cannot be stockpiled by the body, and that it can be lost through perspiration. Unfortunately, most of us shy away from eating large quantities of zinc’s biggest food sources: oysters and seeds—and considering the higher demands for zinc in a stressed body, supplementary zinc in a high quality amino-acid chelated form such as zinc glycinate becomes an easy choice.
It Takes Two to Tango!
A woman may be able to raise a baby on her own from birth, but without the male contribution of healthy sperm, she can’t conceive. So it’s also important to note how critical nutrients like vitamin C and zinc are to men’s reproductive health. Vitamin C improves sperm quality and semen volume upon ejaculation. Zinc is also needed to manufacture a good quantity AND quality of sperm as well as the seminal fluid used to transport sperm during ejaculation. In fact, even more zinc is lost with each ejaculation! Even healthy levels of testosterone require adequate zinc. Optimizing zinc status in biological moms and dads-to-be prior to conception attempts is key for success. Of course, macronutrient-balanced nutrition and stress management techniques that can include meditation, deep breathing and forest bathing are just some of the other key ingredients for reducing the impact of stress on fertility. So, take a few deep breaths (to lower your cortisol!), and take the time to reflect on which of these factors need tweaking to help you conceive.
Andrea Bartels B.A. CNP NNCP RNT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist who teaches Hormone Health, Pathology and other courses at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition.
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