If you're trying to conceive, you know it isn't as easy as your middle school sex ed class made it seem. Before you start, you have to pick out a prenatal vitamin and adjust your habits (quit smoking if you're a smoker, lower your caffeine intake, abstain from alcohol). Then you have to track your cycle and wait for your fertile days, when you absolutely have to have sex even if it's a Wednesday and you and your partner are so tired from work you can barely microwave your own dinners. Then more waiting, as questions like "can implantation be affected by stress?" keep you up at night. Because let's be honest, stress is part of the trying to conceive package. While studies of the relationship between stress and fertility have had mixed results, a 2017 article published in Fertility and Sterility concluded that "both home and work stress were independently associated with prolonged time trying to conceive."
The study behind these findings collected self-reported data from female users of a fertility-tracking app over a two-year period. Researchers assessed women's reported levels of stress and the number of months they had been trying to conceive. Interestingly, men's mental health can also affect conception, though in a different way: another study published in the same journal found that men with physician-diagnosed anxiety disorders were more likely to father male infants. So the next time a well-meaning older woman tells you to go on vacation or "just relax" in order to improve your chances of getting pregnant, you can say that your partner needs to chill, too.
Over email, Romper spoke with Atlanta OB-GYN Adrienne Zertuche about the relationship between stress and implantation. Zertuche agrees that "stress most certainly can have a detrimental impact on fertility." She points out that it can also become a self-fulling prophecy. "Unfortunately, having trouble conceiving may increase stress levels, and that stress can in turn decrease the likelihood of success for treatment of infertility." I experienced this cycle of stress and infertility with my first pregnancy, which happened about a year after we first started trying (and not long after I'd made an appointment to see a fertility specialist).
Women are used to having control over so many areas of our lives, from the careers we choose to the people we marry. It's hard to want something as much as many of us want to have a child, and have no control over how long it takes. Trying to conceive can feel like an unpaid second job you've taken on: reading countless books and articles, visiting alternative practitioners like acupuncturists or ayurvedic specialists, following special diets. When someone tells you to relax in the midst of all this, it's hard not to lose your temper.
If implantation is what you're specifically worried about, it may help to remember that this occurs after the egg has been fertilized by a sperm and travelled through your fallopian tube as an embryo. In other words, you're already most of the way toward the beginning of a pregnancy. After the embryo implants in the endometrium (which is the mucous membrane that lines your uterus), it grows with the support of your blood supply and the surrounding cells in your uterus until it becomes a fetus and placenta.
As for what you can do in the meantime, Zertuche offers this general advice for maintaining a healthy lifestyle:
- Do not smoke or use recreational drugs.
- Limit alcohol intake or stop drinking entirely.
- Eat healthily and engage in frequent moderate intensity exercise.
- Limit stress as much as possible (or find healthy ways to reduce it).
- Avoid environmental pollutants and toxins
If you feel you need more help coping with stress or other mental health issues, talk to your doctor about your options for support and treatment.