For our blog series this week, we caught up with Lisa Grey. Lisa is the clinical manager at the BePure clinic and is an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience across all aspects of health and wellbeing. Lisa specialises in hormones, mental health, fatigue, gut health and women’s health; making her the perfect person to give us a run down on stress and fertility.
A wee note on stress
It’s important to understand that the human body is unable to differentiate between real and perceived stress. This means that no matter what kind of stress we experience, we respond in the same way.
Whether we are running for our lives, or sitting at our desk feeling overwhelmed by our 9-5, the same physiological processes are taking place inside us.
When we perceive a stress, our nervous system responds by increasing heart rate, blood sugar levels, muscle strength, and stamina. This is known as the 'fight or flight’ response – and it's completely natural and necessary.
Stress becomes an issue when it is prolonged. When we are constantly engaging our ‘fight or flight’ response, there’s no time to ‘rest and digest.’ This has a flow on effect to all areas of health from our digestion and gut health, to our hormones, skin and of course fertility.
From her extensive knowledge and experience in clinic, Lisa explained to us just how stress affects our bodies ability to conceive and nurture a growing baby.
Stress impacts our microbiome
One of the many ways that stress impacts our health is by affecting our digestion and altering our natural microbiomes. When we are stressed, our bodies don’t like to ‘waste energy’ on digestion; there’s no time to stop and digest food when our life is in immediate danger. As a result, we produce less HCl (stomach acid), and our gallbladder and pancreas don’t function quite as well. Poorly digested food changes the environment in our gut, making it much more hospitable for unfriendly bacteria, yeasts and other pathogens.
When helping clients in the BePure clinic, whether it's for fertility, immunity, fatigue or any other concern, we always start with the gut, purely because it plays such an integral part in our health and wellbeing.
If we can’t get nutrients into the body or toxins out of it, it’s almost impossible to make any progress with how we feel.
Another reason why our gut microbiome is so important for fertility is its close relationship with the vaginal microbiome - the microbial ecosystem found in the reproductive tract. This microbiota can influence whether or not the environment is a safe place to grow and nurture a baby. When it’s not as healthy as it should be, the result can be an embryo that fails to implant or can lead to a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy.
A large proportion of the clients we see clinically for fertility have gut pathogens that need to be addressed before we look at other areas of their health.
Cortisol drives our sex hormone production
Essentially, the female hormone system is like an inverted triangle with cortisol at the top and sex hormones down the sides. Cortisol rules the roost; what cortisol says, goes, and oestrogen and progesterone respond accordingly. When cortisol is out of whack, you can guarantee your sex hormones will be as well. As we know, both oestrogen and progesterone are essential for healthy ovulatory cycles and fertility.
Cortisol gets a bad wrap for being our ‘stress’ hormone, but it’s actually our survival hormone.
Consider this - your body never does anything against you, only to keep you alive. While you might get frustrated at your body for where it chooses to store fat, or for preventing you from getting pregnant, it’s only because it values your life more than anything else. Sometimes the signs and symptoms we deal with aren’t things that we want, but they’re trying to tell us something and it pays to listen.
A large proportion of the clients we see for fertility are stressed out corporates who are struggling to get or stay pregnant. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. If your life is already in danger, why would your body set you up for 9 hard months of having every ounce of fuel and essential nutrients sucked out of you? To your body, you are more important than any unborn baby.
The relationship between stress, androgens and blood sugar
Androgens are a group of hormones that include Testosterone, DHEA, etiocholanolone and Andostendione. Excess androgens in females has been linked to PCOS, absent or irregular cycles, weight gain, acne, unwanted hair growth and infertility.
50% of our androgens are made by the adrenal glands and the rest is made by our ovaries and fat cells. When we are stressed to the max and our adrenal glands are pumping out more and more cortisol, they’re producing more androgens as well.
In addition to increased androgen production, stress can also change the pathways of these androgens. The 5 alpha-reductase pathway is considered the more inflammatory metabolic pathway, leading to acne, unwanted hair or hair loss. In many women, stress drives androgens through this pathway, rather than the less inflammatory beta alternatives.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS, is characterised by androgen excess and is one of the most common causes of female infertility. When working to lower androgens to optimal levels, it’s important to treat the reason that the androgens are high in the first place. Androgen excess can be the result of insulin resistance, inflammation, adrenal function and recently coming off hormonal birth control. For this reason and many others, hormone testing such as the Eve hormone balance test can be incredibly beneficial for getting to the root cause of infertility and supporting the body to establish hormone balance and regular ovulation.
A fertility story from the BePure clinic:
Not so long ago a lady came to the clinic with really high levels of C-reactive protein, a key marker of inflammation in the body. To put things in perspective, this should be below 5 medically and ideally in the clinic, we like it around 1. Hers were in the 30’s and no one had been able to tell her why.
She ate reasonably well and took care of herself, but despite her best efforts, couldn’t lose weight or get pregnant.
Through hormone testing we could see that her androgens were off the charts, however as they weren’t metabolising through the inflammatory pathway, she presented with none of the typical androgen excess symptoms.
Her oestrogen was moderate to normal, and progesterone on the lower side, but essentially this was a classic case of insulin-resistant PCOS; just without the typical symptoms.
We cleaned up her diet further, moving away from the traditional ‘food-pyramid’ approach, towards a lower carb style of eating to support her insulin resistance and excess androgens. Along with a few supportive supplements and some lifestyle changes, her blood sugar levels and CRP levels improved over 3-6 months. This client is now happily pregnant and due to have her first baby later this year.
Looking for more information? Head over to our FAQs page where you can find out about Eve, what the Eve Hormone Balance Test measures, when the best time to test your hormones is, and more.
Don’t forget to check out our blog 5 Common Signs of Hormone Imbalances to see if those physical sensations you’re experiencing could be hormone related.