Understanding How Stress Affects Fertility and Reproductive Health
The debate about the impact of chronic stress on fertility is still unresolved. However, more and more research suggests a strong link between mental health and physical well-being. Stress can wreck havoc on an already delicately balanced endocrine system by increasing the production of cortisol and prolactin, which are two hormones that interfere with proper ovulation and implantation. Elevated adrenal function associated with stress response uses progesterone to produce the hormone cortisol, hence depleting the supply of progesterone, which is needed to thicken the uterine lining. Data also implies that increases in abnormalities within the immune system are greatly compounded by stress and decrease the chance of successful IVF transfer, embryo implantation, and full term live birth. Stress has also been known to decrease or give rise to no ovulation and can increase symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Fertility related stress can further exacerbate an already stressful lifestyle, establishing a viscous loop of continued anxiety.
How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Treat Stress
Chinese medicine has historically sought to treat the whole rather than just a part of a system, and prides itself on the focus of treating the root of disease before too many life altering symptoms can manifest. The differentials associated with the treatment of stress, according to traditional Chinese medicine, are vast. They begin with treatment of symptoms ranging from amenorrhea to migraine headaches, then precisely maneuver back to the root to achieve the desired outcome of fertility. Because of such a strong foundation of seeing “the big picture” in diagnosis, practitioners of Chinese medicine are at an advantage as far as treatment strategies are concerned.
Acupuncture focuses on treating the most problematic symptoms first, such as sleep disturbances or chronic pain conditions that can be exacerbated by chronic stress. Points selected include those that help regulate the endocrine system to avoid over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and misdirection of hormones necessary for reproduction. Acupuncture also focuses on strengthening the immune system to prevent any misguided inflammatory responses.
Chinese herbs are as varied as acupuncture treatments and would be highly individualized according to diagnosis. The goal would be to initially treat specific symptoms, then gradually, as the systems become more stable, move into addressing egg quality, immune dysfunction or blood flow depending on the personal fertility challenges of the patient.
Reproductive organ massage (ROM) is a wonderful tool not only to treat the manifestations of stress but also to help develop ways to cope with any later incidences. ROM helps the body to relearn how to breathe, expanding the abdomen and allowing for a more complete transaction of oxygen with all the cells. This diaphragmatic breath is used in meditational traditions throughout the world and the effect of its assistance in transitioning the body into a more relaxed state is well documented. The link between the brain and the gut through the nervous system can lead to residual “undigested” emotions that can then further stagnate in the abdomen. This emotional accumulation can cause muscular tension that can impede blood flow to all the organs and even lead to misalignment of the uterus. As these tensions are unwound through gentle massage techniques, the body as a whole relaxes as its center, or core, is allowed reprieve.
Nutritional and lifestyle guidance recommends a program of stress management, including proper sleep habits and regular practice in tai chi, yoga, meditation, and/or aerobic exercise. An organic diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, lean meats, fish, poultry, and fresh fruits will also help balance nutritional and mineral deficiencies that may be leading to additional stress on the body.