The Grapevine

When Stress Makes You Hungry, It May Be Bad For Fertility

Having a stressful lifestyle may not only lead to sudden weight gain in women but also unexpected problems with how they build a family in the future, according to a new study. Researchers discovered a link between chronic stress and poor ovarian function.

The bad effects of stress occur because of a hunger-triggering hormone called ghrelin. The researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said that stress triggers the production of ghrelin, which in high levels could stimulate appetite and damage someone’s reproductive function.

"Stress is an inseparable part of our lives and most of us deal with it quite efficiently, without major health problems," Luba Sominsky, senior study co-author and vice-chancellor's postdoctoral research fellow at RMIT, said in a statement.

Sominsky noted the fertility problems linked to stress were only temporary and reversible in young and healthy women. However, for those already suffering from other reproductive health issues a minor impact on their ovarian function may influence the chance and timing of their conception.

But the hormone ghrelin also plays a key role in helping women maintain a healthy ovary. The researchers were able to reduce the negative effect of chronic stress on the organ by blocking the ghrelin receptor in animal subjects.

Sominsky said humans may also see the same results. The researchers published the findings in the Journal of Endocrinology

"Our findings help clarify the intriguing role of ghrelin in these complex connections, and point us on a path towards future research that could help us find ways of mitigating the effects of stress on reproductive function," she said. 

Sarah Spencer, senior study co-author and an associate professor at RMIT, said eating habits may also help reverse the effects of stress on fertility because ghrelin is known for its ties to appetite. The research team noted further research is needed to see the long-term impact of chronic stress on fertility and the role of ghrelin in regulating the effects.

"But getting a better understanding of the role of ghrelin in all of this brings us an important step closer to developing interventions that can keep these critical parts of the reproductive system healthy," Sominsky said.