June 2022

Fertility well-being - work life and beyond

6 min read

What aspects of our work life that often go overlooked may negatively impact fertility well-being?  The impact of work stress on fertility is well-known. But what is less well known is that work schedules and posture can also impact fertility. Learn how to improve both.

Why does stress impact fertility?

The stress response is a generic mechanism that tells our body and brain to do something. It is the same regardless of whether we face a threat or an exciting challenge. The cat’s body reacts the same way to chasing a mouse as a mouse’s body reacts to escaping the feline danger. Neither knows if it can succeed. Perception labels the experience as stressful or exciting. The body doesn’t.

The nervous system delivers information to the body about stress via acetylcholine. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in focus. In the muscles, it is involved in contraction. When something stresses us, our nervous system releases acetylcholine which triggers the release of adrenaline - the molecule responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

The visual focus narrows and the body tenses. The parts of the body that need to be active when we are in potential danger – particularly the legs – respond to adrenaline by dilating blood vessels and contracting muscles. Suppressing this instinctive movement may even feel like a tremor, tension or agitation. The other parts that can spare energy respond by decreasing blood flow. These parts are internal organs involved in digestion and reproduction. Blood flow increases in these regions again when our systems enter the rest-and-digest response, facilitated by relaxation techniques.

A new kind of work/life balance

Exposing our bodies to a constant fight-or-flight response, without switching back to the rest-and-digest response, can negatively impact fertility by increasing stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) and decreasing the blood, oxygen and nutrient flow to the reproductive organs.

Most of us enjoy and engage in many streams of work as part of our career and, while we manage responsibilities and tasks, we may not be aware of the stressful situations our bodies go through. A stressful situation can range from an important business call to an argument to driving through hectic traffic. It increases adrenaline, dopamine, and cortisol levels, which activate the fight-or-flight response. But another source of stress in the body can be the nature of the job or even its schedule.

Many people in physically demanding jobs, which may include non-conventional working hours, like their professions. However, there is preliminary evidence pointing towards the importance of considering such workplace exposures and their impact on fertility. Dr. Mínguez-Alarcón and colleagues observed that evening, night and shift working schedules were associated with 2.3 fewer mature eggs, on average, while lifting and moving heavy objects at work were associated with 1.4 fewer mature eggs.

Research has yet to determine whether egg production and quality can be improved if such work exposures are avoided, but this serves as preliminary evidence of the importance of looking at all aspects of our life when improving fertility well-being. The mechanism behind how heavy lifting could affect ovarian reserve is still unknown. However, sleep and reproduction both follow the circadian rhythm or the body's natural rhythm. Evening, night and shift work do not follow the human body's natural rhythm which could explain why this type of work schedule impacts egg production and maturation.

Don’t get slumped!

Posture and physical activity should be a consideration for each and every one of us, regardless of what our daily schedule revolves around. While slumped relaxed postures may seem comfortable, they are anything but healthy for long-term physical and mental well-being. Physically, sustained slumped postures may be harmful to the spine by contributing to disc degeneration, both in the presence and absence of pain. They can also negatively impact spinal muscles and joints and lead to poorer spinal flexibility and stability.

Mentally, back pain is associated with an increased likelihood of poorer mental health, sleep disturbances, stress and disorders such as depression and anxiety. On the bright side, the reverse is true as well. Researchers have observed that adopting [an upright seated posture](https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25222091/#:~:text=Conclusions%3A Adopting an upright seated,speech and reduces self-focus.) can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture.

After looking at our posture, we can become aware of how we spread physical activity throughout our day. Sitting down for longer periods of time may cause the blood vessels to become constricted, restricting the blood and nutrient flow to the reproductive organs in people with ovaries. In people with testes, sitting down for extended periods of time has been correlated with higher scrotal temperatures that may consequently lower average sperm production.

Could using a standing desk be better? This is one solution commonly employed to counteract the potentially harmful consequences of a sedentary lifestyle on cardiovascular health. Let us look at the numbers of calories burned sitting, standing and walking:

  • Sitting burned 80 calories/hour;
  • Standing burned 88 calories/hour;
  • Walking burned 210 calories/hour.

Energy expenditure has been shown to correlate with heart rate. The higher the energy expenditure of an activity, the higher the heart rate measures at the time. The heart is a muscle and engaging in activities that increase heart rate in a healthy way throughout the day helps strengthen the heart muscle. Alternating periods of sitting and standing with walking can have a better effect on cardiovascular health than alternating between sitting and standing alone.

A fertility well-being routine

Fertility doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It influences and it is influenced by most areas of our life. Acknowledging the impact of our lifestyles on our mental and physical health allows us to make intentional changes that put us in control of our life and well-being. Small actions that can improve well-being can stack up, become routine and make a big impact, especially when going through their fertility journey.

Breathwork, meditation, gratitude, gentle movements such as walking and yoga or even a simple nap can help take your mind and body out of the fight-or-flight response and into the rest-and-digest response. This happens on a molecular level that can feel deeply relaxing and recharging. Gentle movements such as yoga for fertility which consists of postures designed to release tension in the abdominal area can increase blood flow to the reproductive organs. This can relieve tension and stagnation arising from sitting down for extended periods of time. A fertility well-being routine consists of small powerful actions. At Harper, we understand the importance of well-being during your fertility journey and we are here to support you — backed by science.

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