7 Ways Stress Can Make It Harder to Get Pregnant

Whether stress itself can make getting pregnant difficult is a matter of debate. The current thinking is that stress alone does not cause infertility. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine states in their stress and infertility pamphlet, "Even though infertility is very stressful, there isn't any proof that stress causes infertility."

Can Stress Keep You From Getting Pregnant?

stressed couple sitting on bed
Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

Extreme stress may affect fertility, but rarely in ways that would lead to long-term trouble with getting pregnant. For example, you may have experienced a late or irregular period during an unusually stressful time. But that was just one period.

So if you've been told to "just relax, and it will happen," you should know that a vacation alone is not going to cure your infertility.

When Stress Can Lead to Trouble Getting Pregnant

While stress alone does not seem to cause infertility, stress can push us toward unhealthy behaviors that can affect our fertility.

For example, when you're stressed out, you may:

  • Sleep too much or sleep too little
  • Give into emotional eating or not allow enough time to eat right
  • Not find enough time for exercise or push yourself to exercise too hard
  • Drink one too many alcoholic drinks
  • Smoke, or, if you quit smoking, start smoking again
  • Drink too much coffee, especially if you're sleep deprived
  • Lose interest in having sex

All of these are habits that can affect your fertility. How? Let's talk about that.

How Stress, Sleep, and Getting Pregnant Are Connected

If your work schedule or lifestyle leads to frequent late nights with early wake-up calls, the constant lack of sleep can affect your body, and hence, affect your fertility.

Research has shown that people who get less than five hours of sleep are more likely to suffer from obesity, and obesity can lead to problems with fertility.

Working the graveyard shift may also affect your fertility. Research on night-shift workers has shown that working the night shift relatively close to the day of ovulation may increase the rate of miscarriage. Research has also shown that night shift work can cause irregular menstruation in some women. Irregular menstruation is a risk factor for fertility problems.

Getting adequate sleep at night and avoiding the night shift if possible may help improve your chances of getting pregnant.

Ways to improve your sleep habits include:

  • Creating a bedtime routine and sticking with it
  • Avoiding work or checking email just before sleep
  • Avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and evening
  • Having a cup of herbal tea just before bed
  • Keeping your bedroom work- and TV-free

Can't sleep because you have too many things on your mind? Try writing in a journal before bed or even simply writing out what you need to do tomorrow.

How Stress and Emotional Eating May Harm Fertility

When people are stressed, they tend to eat in less than healthy ways. Constant stress has been shown to lead to weight gain, and weight gain and obesity have in turn been linked to fertility problems.

Research has long shown a connection between obesity and infertility in women. Even being slightly overweight may affect fertility.

And it's not just women that need to watch the scale. Obesity can also negatively impact male fertility, leading to lower sperm counts.

Watching your carbohydrate and junk food intake is also advisable. This is true for men and women. Eating more junk food has been correlated with poorer sperm health.

Can't help but reach for the Doritos when deadlines loom and stress is arising? You may also want to look for ways to stop emotional eating.

Yo-Yo Dieting, Extreme Dieting, and Your Fertility

Just as eating too much junk food or being overweight can cause fertility problems, weighing too little or not eating enough can affect your reproductive potential.

Some people cope with stress by dieting or find that they lose their appetite when under a lot of pressure. At the extreme, the eating disorder anorexia can end your menstrual cycles. No menstrual cycle means no ovulation. Without ovulation, you can't get pregnant.

While we're talking about extreme dieting, there are "fertility diets" online that preach some crazy practices, with little or no research behind their recommendations.

If you've bought into one of these fertility diets, take note of your eating habits. If something inside your heart is whispering, "You know, this diet does seem a little nuts," then it probably is.

A balanced diet, complete with whole grains, lots of veggies and fruits, healthy fats, and protein, is what you should aim for. Avoid fad diets that advocate the elimination of entire food groups.

You Should Work Out But Not Too Much

Getting a healthy amount of exercise can help lower stress and lead to a healthier body. Exercise can also help with weight loss, and if you need to lose weight, that's just one more reason to tie on those walking shoes. Ideally, we should all be exercising for at least 45 minutes a few times a week. However, it's all about balance.

A surprising study looked at the effect exercise habits had on IVF outcomes. The study, which included just over 2,000 women, found that women who said they worked out regularly were no more likely to conceive than women who said they never worked out.

Women who reported that they worked out four or more hours per week for the past one to nine years were 40 percent less likely to have a live birth from IVF.

They were also twice as likely to experience implantation failure or pregnancy loss and three times more likely to have a treatment cycle canceled.

Also, generally, women who said they participated in cardio workouts (for example, aerobics, running, or swimming) had a 30 percent lower chance of a successful live birth after IVF.

If you're trying to lose weight, then you may need four hours or more a week of exercise. But if you just love the gym, based on this study, you may want to cut back a tad, at least on the cardio workouts. Maybe switch some of your aerobics classes for some yoga.

At the extreme, if you have a problem with compulsive exercise, you risk lowering your fertility, not to mention the risk to the rest of your health.

Enjoy Your Coffee, But Within Limits

When we're feeling tired and stressed at work, a cup of coffee packed with caffeine can help get us over the afternoon (or morning) hump. That cup o' joe is great for our co-workers—we'll snap at them less!

But does caffeine affect fertility? One study implied that too much coffee can have a negative effect on your fertility, especially if you already are dealing with fertility issues. Researchers looked at couples who went through IVF treatment but later went on to try to conceive naturally.

Drinking four or more cups of coffee a day reduced a couple's chance of conceiving by 26 percent.

Now, four cups is a lot of coffee. Most researchers say that if you stick to less than 300 mg of caffeine a day, you'll be safe. That's about two to three 5 oz. cups of coffee (depending on how strong the brew is).

Also, it's important to consider that previous studies failed to find a connection between caffeine and fertility. The topic is certainly up for debate.

Some studies have also found a possible link between miscarriage and coffee drinking. As with infertility, the studies that warn against caffeine say less than 200 to 300mg a day should be all right.

Why You Might Want to Limit Alcohol

Who doesn't know someone whose answer to a stressful day is a drink? You probably already know that drinking and smoking are big no-no's when you're trying to get pregnant. But is just one glass of wine after work a problem?

A research study that looked at the effect of lifestyle and fertility found that drinking three or more alcoholic drinks a week significantly lowered a woman's chance of pregnancy, specifically if the woman already is having trouble conceiving.

According to the March of Dimes, no amount of alcohol has been proven to be 100 percent safe in pregnancy. To be on the safe side, avoid drinking while you are trying to get pregnant and during pregnancy. However, be aware that this recommendation is simply out of caution as there is only sparse evidence available about the actual impacts of light drinking while pregnant. A drink on your birthday probably won't hurt, but don't make drinking a frequent weekly habit.

What about your partner? Drinking has been linked to lower fertility rates in men, as well as to an increased risk of miscarriage.

According to one study, which evaluated the effect of alcoholic consumption on IVF success, for every additional drink the man consumed, the risk of conception not leading to a live birth increased by two to eight times. This was true for beer drinking as well.

Smoking Can Harm Fertility

What about smoking? If either of you are smokers, be aware that smoking has a strong impact on your fertility.

In women, smoking is associated with an increased risk of blocked fallopian tubes, increased cervical cancer risk, damage to the eggs in the ovaries, and an increased risk of miscarriage. This is, of course, in addition to all the usual negative effects of smoking.

For men, male smoking was found to decrease the odds of IVF success and possibly increase the risk of miscarriage. Also, his secondhand smoke can harm the female partner's fertility.

When either partner smokes, you are lowering your fertility, increasing the risk of miscarriage, and putting your unborn baby's health at risk.

Before you continue with trying to get pregnant, please try to quit smoking first.

When Stress Gets in the Way of Sex and Fertility

Sex can be a stress reliever, something to relax with at the end of a long day. However, crazy work schedules, not to mention feeling exhausted, can make finding time for sex tricky.

A stress-filled life can also lower your libido, so you might not be in the mood often. It seems logical to say that if you want to get pregnant, you need to have sex. But some stressed out couples mistakenly believe that sex once or twice a month is enough. It's not.

Then, there's the effect of infertility on your sex life. Infertility may lower your libido, and in men, can also lead to impotence. If timed sex is causing problems in the bedroom, stop trying to time sex for ovulation. Instead, just have sex a few times a week.

If stress or a busy life schedule is getting in the way of your baby-making, you may need to be proactive in finding time for sex. For example, if you or your partner are feeling too tired at night, consider moving your intimate time to the mornings, before work.

If stress is causing relationship problems, counseling may be helpful.

A Word From Verywell

Stress itself may not directly cause infertility, but as you can see, stress can lead to lifestyle choices that can make getting pregnant tricky. Also, besides whatever stress you already have, infertility itself causes tremendous stress.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, consider seeing a therapist. Therapy may not help you get pregnant, but it may lower your anxiety and stress levels, allowing you to enjoy your life more and make healthier lifestyle choices. 

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