Urit Chaimovitz was sitting in a Boston infertility clinic when a poster for a mindfulness-based program to help women conceive caught her eye.
At the time, Chaimovitz had been trying to have a baby for 2 years without success. She had managed to get pregnant four times before, both naturally and with IVF. But each time, she lost the baby around the second trimester.
“It’s so stressful when you don’t know why you’re having trouble,” says Chaimovitz, now 42. “I wanted a baby so badly I would have hung upside down or drunk gallons of green juice if I thought it helped.”
So Chaimovitz eagerly signed up for the mindfulness program led by Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health. The 10-week sessions included yoga, meditation, and learning behavioral techniques like overcoming negative thoughts. Several months after finishing the program, Chaimovitz got pregnant again. Her daughter, Romi, was born in 2018.
“When you’re trying to get pregnant and someone tells you to just relax, you get annoyed,” Chaimovitz says. “But in my case, I really do think it helped. I stopped feeling like my body was the enemy.”
It’s not easy to tease out all the reasons why some couples seem to conceive easily and quickly while others have much more trouble. But research suggests that stress may be one factor that can affect the conception math.
The Science Behind Stress and Fertility
Several recent studies have found links between the women’s levels of day-to-day stress and lowered chances of pregnancy. For example, women whose saliva had high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that marks stress, took 29% longer to get pregnant compared to those who had less.
“Your body is smart, it knows that (periods of stress) aren’t good times to have a baby,” says Domar, a longtime infertility researcher who also is director of mind/body services at Boston IVF.
At the same time, stressed women probably also have sex less often, Domar says. And they may be more likely to smoke or drink too much alcohol or caffeine -- behaviors that can hardly improve their odds.
Domar faced skepticism when she published a small study in 1990 showing that lowering stress with group therapy, individual cognitive behavior therapy, and relaxation techniques like guided imagery helped some infertile women get pregnant.
“The medical community said I was stupid to believe that the mind had any control over the ovaries,” Domar recalls.
Domar followed that with a much bigger study a decade later to report that among women who had trouble conceiving, those who received cognitive behavioral therapy were almost twice as likely to end up pregnant as those who didn’t.
Today, researchers widely accept that stress and fertility are connected.
“We know now that stress hormones such as cortisol disrupt signaling between the brain and the ovaries, which can trip up ovulation,” says Sarah Berga, MD, an infertility specialist and vice chair of women’s health at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Everyone gets stressed once in a while. So if you’re frazzled for a few weeks at work or feel anxious about a big move, it likely won’t hurt your baby-making abilities. But if your stress goes on for a long time or if you’re dealing with a major upheaval like unemployment or a death in the family, then your ovulation might get thrown out of whack, Berga says.
About 1 in 10 women of childbearing age have trouble conceiving or finishing the pregnancy, according to the CDC. Usually, there is a physical reason, such as blocked fallopian tubes.
But as months go by without conception, stress may kick in.
“Women struggling with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women diagnosed with cancer or HIV,” Domar says. As a result, a vicious cycle starts.
Domar’s mind/body program aims to curb that stress through several approaches. First is talk therapy to help reframe your feelings. You learn to challenge automatic negative thoughts like, "I’ll never get pregnant,” or blaming yourself.
Domar’s clients also practice a type of yoga called hatha yoga, which pairs yoga postures with deep breathing exercises. She says it’s a way for women to nurture themselves.
“A lot of my patients are angry at their bodies, so they stop taking care of it,” Domar says. “This is a way for them to feel connected to themselves again.”
Domar says it’s also important for the women and their partners to talk and to listen to each other about their shared struggles. That, along with plugging into support groups, can help ease the mental and emotional toll from infertility.
What Else You Can Do
If you’ve been trying to have a baby for a while or just want to ramp up your chances, research suggests these actions might help.
Exercise for “just right” amount. Physical activity both lowers stress and boosts fertility, says Lauren Wise, ScD, professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. But low key is key. Working out moderately, 1 to 5 hours a week of activities like walking, raised the odds of conception in a study Wise conducted. But women who worked out more vigorously were less likely to pregnant.
Watch your weight. One downfall of stress is a tendency to eat for emotional comfort. Being overweight or obese makes it harder to get or stay pregnant. Some research suggests that women who are obese may be three times more likely than other women to have trouble conceiving.
Eat a healthy diet. When you’re stressed, it’s tempting to load up on processed, sugary foods. But women who follow a Mediterranean-style diet rich in whole grains, omega-3 fatty acids, fish, and soy are more likely to conceive than those who eat a high-fat, heavily processed diet, according to one study.