August 11th, 2010
05:36 PM ET

Relax and you might help yourself get pregnant

If you're trying to get pregnant, you may benefit from reducing your stress levels, according to a new study.

Couples trying to have a baby are probably familiar with the notion that too much stress can contribute to problems conceiving.  But there hasn't been any clear scientific evidence to prove this in couples without infertility problems, according to the lead study author Germaine Buck Louis.

This is the first study to show that women with the highest levels of stress had the lowest probability of getting pregnant each day during the fertile window of their monthly cycle says Louis.  She is the director of the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research at the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

274 women hoping to become moms between the ages of 18 and 40 and living in the United Kingdom participated in the study.  They were asked to keep detailed diaries and take a saliva sample on the 6th day of their menstrual cycles. The saliva samples were tested for two substances that the body releases during times of physical or psychological stress: Cortisol and alpha-amylase. Louis says cortisol can be a measure of long periods of stress, while alpha-amylase is a marker for shorter stress response – when the body's fight or flight reflex is activated

Louis says the study results suggest that stress does matter.  Researchers found that 25 percent of the women in the study had the highest levels of alpha-amylase and their chances of getting pregnant was reduced by 12 percent compared to women with the lowest level of this substance.  "The first time people try, they only have a 25-33 percent chance of getting pregnant," Louis explains.  "So to have a 12 percent further reduction can have a very powerful effect."

Unlike previous studies, this new research found that cortisol did not have a negative effect on conception. "We're quite surprised that the effects [of alpha-amylase vs. cortisol] were so different and in opposite directions," say Louis.

She says this study does not explain why high levels of alpha-amylase may reduce the chance of getting pregnant, but it could be because stressful situations may reduce blood flow and delay the transport of fertilized eggs, which can contribute to the failure to conceive.

"I'm very excited by this data because it does support what I've spent my entire career to prove," says Alice Domar, a leading expert in mind/body women health, who is not involved in the research.  "This is a phenomenal first step" says Domar, adding that more research needs to be done to validate these results, a conclusion also reached by Louis, the study's auhor.

Louis and Domar also agree on another point: Couples who want to become parents don't have to wait for more studies to be completed. "Do whatever you can do to reduce your stress," says Louis. "It sure is not going to hurt you to reduce the stress in your life," Domar adds.

Neither Domar nor Louis recommend stress-relievers like smoking or drinking alcohol because they also reduce the chance of getting pregnant.  Domar recommends: "Find a relaxation technique that works for you."  Louis says yoga, meditation and just talking about your problems (blowing off steam) are all effective ways to reduce stress."  Domar cautions that while exercise is a good way to relax, some women are less fertile when they exercise, so walking may be a good way to go.  She says another important way to reduce stress, particularly the kind that can build up if couples have been trying to get pregnant for a while, is to stop the negative thought process. Domar  says couples can relieve some of this pressure by recognizing that if they try to get pregnant for a while and don't succeed, there are ways modern medicine may be able to help.

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. RandyCrawford

    When I was a kid, my pediatrician and his wife tried and tried to have a baby. Even after extensive consultations with fertility experts over several years, no medical problems could be found in either the pediatrician or his wife, and no cure was obtainable. So, finally they gave up hope of ever having their own biological child, and they opted for adoption. Once they gave up the anxiety of trying for their own biological child– you guessed it! She turned up pregnant about 2 months after the adoption. Just like women need to be well-nourished and have adequate body fat (about 15%) to be able to become pregnant, women also need to be emotionally settled enough for everything to come together. Pregnancy is a big deal, and so evolution and natural selection have made sure that only when nutrition and anxiety are at healthy levels can the effort of a pregnancy be justified in the human body. Put another way, a pregnancy is in many ways nature's diagnosis that the mother qualifies for a clean bill of good health. Exactly how this or that level of body fat and this or that level of contentment may feed back to the maturing of an egg and ovarian follicle and nourishing endometrium is largely unknown, but observed outcomes demonstrate there is a close correlation to insure the next generation is well provided for, and the current generation is not unduly taxed by the demands of reproduction.

    August 11, 2010 at 18:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Melone

      You are wrong. Nature has not "made sure that only when nutrition and anxiety are at healthy levels can the effort of a pregnancy be justified." If that were the case, drug addicts/HIV pos. women/ women living in poverty/alcoholics/the mentally ill/ women being severely abused, etc. would not be getting pregnant left-and-right.

      Furthermore, it's incorrect to state "pregnancy is in many ways nature's diagnosis that the mother qualifies for a clean bill of good health" for the exact reasons stated above. If you or your wife were dealing with infertility, you'd understand infertility with no known cause is not necessarily due to stress or any other reason you can "find." If you were worked in social work, the legal system, etc. you would realize that women who take absolutely atrocious care of themselves (by which I mean major drug addictions, daily heavy drinking and smoking, etc.) are often easily able to get pregnant, unfortunately for their offspring.

      Saying "observed outcomes demonstrate" is silly- it's just hearsay, and using hearsay to hurt women (and men) struggling with infertility is just wrong.

      I wish more people would realize it's wrong to tell women to relax or be patient or that they must have a health issue that's preventing pregnancy. Wait until it happens to you, or your sister, or your daughter.

      To those trying to get pregnant: I know you are doing the best you can. Don't let articles like this, or comments like the one above, make you feel you are not doing all you can. Best of luck and peace to you.

      August 12, 2010 at 08:06 | Report abuse |
    • Melone

      I would like to add to my comment above that I am not saying women who have a health issue (including HIV) should not get pregnant. That is your right, as long as you are taking medication and getting prenatal care. I simply meant nature doesn't discriminate as he is implying. I did not mean to judge those who are ill. However, if you have an addiction, please overcome it before becoming pregnant.

      August 12, 2010 at 08:10 | Report abuse |
  2. Christine

    While I feel this study validates certain information regarding stress and the ability to get pregnant I think it's a fallacy to assume that "just relax" will do it every time. Additionally, I think Mr. Crawford's comments are totally ridiculous. You have no idea how many anecdotal tales are told about women adopting and then turning up pregnant. Sorry charlie for most women who have fertility problems (defined by the ACOG as the inability to attain or maintain a pregnancy for over one year if you are under the age of 35, 6 months if you are over 35) this is not the case. If one more person in my life told me to just "relax" I probaly would have hurt someone.
    As it turns out you cannot control all fertility issues by "just relax." And in a way it annoys me that this study validated that hypothesis because now poor infertile women everywhere will be hearing "but I read on CNN that some study said just relax will get you pregnant" UGH

    August 12, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Melissa

    While I agree with these physicians that it certainly NEVER hurts individuals (women or men) to minimize the stress in their lives, perpetuating this "old wives' tale" approach to combating infertility does a disservice to all women- not just those struggling to become pregnant. Women's health needs need to be taken as seriously as men's needs- across the WHOLE illness spectrum. We have been fighting to do this for decades- through participation in research to active listening and fighting physician bias through medical education. I am embarrassed (although not surprised) that these female physician-researchers focus more on their agenda than the big picture and the impact of their statements on women and women's health initiatives.

    August 12, 2010 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Tanya

    Why do these studies lag so far behind what most know as facts? I found this to be true approximately 8 years ago and it was my ob/gyn who told me that I was stressed. As soon as the stress factors were removed, I got pregnant with my second child. I think we need to be more proactive here. Also think we should be more vigilant about some of the issues around teeting in babies/young children. Most Paediatricians will agree that babies will have runny noses/fevers while teething, but the medical journals/studies say otherwise. Incredible! Will it take a "study" for us to confirm this?

    August 12, 2010 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Waffles

    I worked in advertising in NYC and started trying to become pregnant at 37. After consulting a myriad of specialists (just short of Zev Rosenwaks), I went to a new one. She recognized how stressful my job was. After one round of injectable fertility shots I became pregnant with my first child. Surprisingly, when my daughter was 3 months old, I found I was pregnant with twins, without assisted technology and intercourse only once during that time. Since I gave up any thoughts (and stress) of ever having any more, it miraculously happened. Once the stress went away, so did the barriers.

    August 12, 2010 at 19:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Miss Z

    If this study were true, how do you explain women getting pregnant in famine-ravaged countries, during wartime, via rape, etc. Women conceive in highly stressful situations all the time!

    August 12, 2010 at 22:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Are you serious?

    This article makes me livid.

    While stress reduction may work for some couples in the "mildy infertile" category, this article should have acknowledged that MANY people have REAL PHYSICAL problems that create infertility. No amount of stress reduction is going to fix a physicall abnormality. There is such a stigma on couples who can't get pregnant and saying "just relax" is one of the most insensitive things a person can say to an infertile. This article is only going to increase ignorance.

    August 13, 2010 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Annoyed

    If stress were at the heart of all or most fertility issues, that would imply that everyone who ever wanted a baby but had trouble immediately went into full on fight or flight mode from day one of trying. Most couples start with simply not preventing, and it isn't until many months (or even years) later that they start to suspect something is wrong, and THEN it becomes stressful. In our infertility journey of over 2 years, I got pregnant the month I was extremely stressed, and I did not get pregnant on the cycles that we took a "break" from charting. So, clearly, "just relax" is not a cure. There is plenty of evidence to show that the number of people who get pregnant after adopting is the same as the number of people who get pregnant in time anyway (whether they are still doing treatments or not). I don't believe that for people trying for years that their alpha-amalyse is elevated all that time. If you have been trying for a few months and are under stress causing you not to ovulate, yes, relaxing may help, but it is completely insulting that there are people who still try to shove this myth down the throats of infertile women as if we are all hysterical, stressed out, control freaks 100% of the time. Yes, infertility is stressful, but it more sad than anything else, and telling us to "relax" is not doing anyone any favors.

    March 1, 2014 at 23:55 | Report abuse | Reply

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