What is the connection between food, fertility and chronic stress?



You are probably completely over being told to ‘reduce your stress’ whilst trying to conceive and to be honest the more you try to calm down the more fidgety you become. You might know what I mean when you lie down to listen to some self-hypnosis download but unable to focus on the words, jaw tense and mind whirring.



Let’s have a look at what happens to your body when you are chronically stressed, how it affects your fertility and how diet can help.


Our body produces a stress response i.e. flight, fright or freeze when it perceives a threat. This is a survival mechanism to keep us safe from predators and is perfectly normal. However, our bodies cannot differentiate between real or imagined threats and our modern day lifestyles are packed with non-life-threatening stressors. For example: waking up in the morning without adequate sleep, getting on a jam-packed commuter train, dealing with difficult customers and work colleagues, eating rubbish on the go, watching 3 episode of the ‘The Walking Dead’ back to back, the checking Facebook before you go to bed….and then find that you can’t get to sleep. Sound familiar?


Our bodies are not built to withstand that much constant stress and unfortunately, as your body is pumping out the stress hormone cortisol this is at the expense of digestion, reproduction and immune function considered non-essential functions when you are in survival mode.


So what has this to do with fertility?

Cortisol is the stress hormone and is produced in the adrenal glands, hence the term HPA (Hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) axis dysregulation (you may have heard this called adrenal fatigue) and is basically a collection of symptoms caused by chronic stress. These are:

  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Abnormal response to stress (screaming at your partner for a minor misdeed)
  • Disturbed sleep (onset or maintenance)
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Low libido
  • Irregular or no periods


Cortisol downregulates the production of growth hormone, Thyroid Releasing hormone and gonad releasing hormones from the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands, without these hormones the effects of cortisol are blunted, so a vicious cycle ensues. In times of chronic stress cortisol is manufactured from pregnenolone which is the precursor to DHEA which manufactures the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen. This causes hormonal imbalances in both men and women, which in turn has a negative effect on conception.



The stress response requires an immense amount of energy – and our bodies are well equipped to deals with ‘normal’ amount of stress. Unfortunately, when stressed if chronic we will naturally and automatically reach for the quickest releasing energy in foods – and these are simple carbohydrates.



Simple carbohydrates are not just sweets, chocolates and biscuits but savoury foods such as white bread, pasta and potatoes…..all the so-called comfort foods. There are other reasons people reach for these foods but that is a topic for another blog post. When lots of sugar is consumed it throws the balance of glucose in the blood for a loop. Blood glucose is tightly regulated by insulin which is released from the pancreas to clear it into the cells for later use. Once the pancreas and insulin are over stimulated (by a diet high in simple carbs) then blood sugar becomes imbalance causing a cycle of hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia – which places another huge stress on the body and causing more cortisol to be made (at the expense of sex hormones). Cortisol itself causes insulin to rise as well, this can cause testosterone to rise in women – which can cause PCOS, inflammation, and abdominal fat. As testosterone rises so can oestrogen and this can suppress FSH which is the hormone that signals ovulation?  



In men insulin spikes can aromatise testosterone which basically means changes it into estrogen, which can cause female-like characteristics such as man boobs and fat around the hips and thighs, not to mention significantly reducing sex drive.  


So there has been a lot to take in with this post, so I want to end on a positive note. You can greatly reduce your internal stress environment be eating a whole food diet and limit your simple carbohydrates. It takes about 3 days to balance blood sugar enough to get out of the craving cycle, two weeks to see real benefits to your health and wellbeing.