Stress and Infertility

If you and your partner are having trouble conceiving, you may be wondering exactly what is going on. There are a number of diagnostic tests that your health care provider can perform which may be able to pinpoint specific reproductive problems. However, more often than not, health care providers are unable to determine a cause for infertility. This can lead many people to try to find alternative causes for their infertility, such as stress. There has long been a debate about the relationship between stress and infertility. Certainly, infertility has been known to cause a lot of stress, but can stress actually contribute to infertility? Here is some of the latest information on the relationship between stress and infertility.

What is Stress?
Stress is typically defined as any event or occurrence that you believe to be threatening or upsetting. This may include traumatic events such as divorce, illness, or a death in the family, or it could be a more minor event, like a fight with a friend or an incident at work. In order to help signal you to these stressful events, your body is equipped to perform a number of complex actions:

  • Your body releases a hormone known as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF).
  • This CRF activates the system in your brain known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system (HPA).
  • The HPA system releases various chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters) into the body, including the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Your body begins to experience a number of symptoms of stress which may include sweating, shaking, increased breathing, and elevation in heart rate.

Everyone, no matter what their age or sex, experiences some sort of stress on a daily basis.

Can Stress Causes Infertility?
Because of the complex nature of the body’s stress reactions, it has often been theorized that perhaps chronic states of stress could impact upon various aspects of the reproductive system. There is ongoing research examining the effects of different types of stress (both physical and emotional) on both male and female fertility. Many of these studies have produced startling results.

One study evaluated the sperm counts of prisoners awaiting execution. This study revealed that every prisoner participating in the study had some type of sperm deficiency, ranging from poor sperm count to impaired sperm motility and morphology. Another study evaluated the sperm production of monkeys who were chronically stressed. These monkeys all produced lower-than-expected amounts of sperm with poor sperm concentration.

Studies on women experiencing stress also produced similar results. A study involving 151 women undergoing IVF and GIFT procedures, found that those women who were excessively anxious had more reproductive problems. The women who reported the most stress and anxiety had 20% fewer eggs retrieved during treatments. They also had 19% fewer fertilized eggs than their less-stressed counterparts.

Why Would Stress Cause Infertility?
There are a number of theories as to why stress could affect male and female fertility. One such theory relies upon the fact that the body’s stress responses and sex hormones are regulated by the same system in the brain. When stress levels increase, they could inadvertently affect the amount of sex hormones released into the body. This could significantly affect ovulation and menstruation, as well as sperm count.

It is also theorized that stress is more likely to cause us to adapt unhealthy habits. If you are experiencing extreme stress, you are more likely to:

  • smoke
  • take drugs
  • eat a poor diet
  • exercise less
  • sleep poorly

All of these factors can have a detrimental effect on the reproductive system and overall fertility levels.

Does Infertility Cause Stress?
While researchers are still debating whether or not stress really can contribute to infertility, it is a well-established fact that infertility definitely causes stress. In fact, women undergoing fertility treatments were found to have stress levels that were equal to or greater than women facing life-threatening illnesses. This stress can be compounded by things including:

  • invasive medical treatments
  • rising medical costs
  • range of emotions brought out by infertility

Reducing Your Stress Levels
Whether or not your infertility is actually caused by stress, it is imperative to work to lower your stress levels when going through fertility treatment. By engaging in stress relief, you can help to support your partner better and address your own needs. You may even be able to improve your fertility. Here are some stress reduction tips to try out:

  • Alter Stressors: You can help to reduce the stress in your life by altering your stressors. Eliminate those extra responsibilities that you just can’t do. Ask for help when trying to complete a task. And avoid situations that you know are stressful.
  • Improve Communication: Fertility treatment can be very stressful on any couple, and often the lines of communication become a little fuzzy. Work on sharing your feelings openly with your partner and listen to his needs too.
  • Identify your Needs: Be sure to take time to identify and address your own needs. Write down what you need to do for yourself everyday, and make sure you take time to do it.
  • Get Support: Many couples who are dealing with infertility feel utterly alone, and this can be very stressful. It is important to realize that you are not alone in your struggle and that there are people available to help you. Check out local support groups or visit with a social worker or therapist to help you deal with your infertility diagnosis.
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