Stress is a factor to which more and more importance is being attributed in the fight against sterility and infertility problems, in fact, there is increasing emphasis on studying the physiological effects of stress and the role that these effects can play in the reproductive process.
Although it is true that at this point the exact relationship between stress and fertility remains a mystery, the impact that stress has on fertility is impossible to ignore, in light of the many studies published in the most important scientific journals on reproduction, which demonstrate that stress has a significant effect on reducing a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant, whether naturally or with the help of assisted reproduction techniques.
Can stress cause reproductive problems?
- Stress in women: the reality is that stress can cause a whole host of reactions in one woman, and another set in other women, meaning that the how and why of the effect of stress on fertility can be a very individual thing.
In terms of biology, because the hypothalamus regulates both responses to stress and sex hormones, it is easy to understand that stress can cause infertility in some women. Excessive stress can even lead to the menstrual cycle being suppressed, a phenomenon which is often observed in female marathon runners, who develop “athletic amenorrhea”. In the less serious cases, this can cause anovulation, or irregular menstrual cycles. When the pituitary gland is activated by stress, it also produces greater quantities of prolactin, and higher levels of prolactin can cause irregular ovulation.
As the female reproductive system has catecholamine receptors, these can affect fertility in response to stress by interfering with the transport of the ovum and spermatozoa along the Fallopian tube, or by disturbing uterine blood flow.
However, we do not yet fully understand the complex processes which may be at play in the relationship between stress and its influence on the reproductive system.
- Stress in men: stress can also reduce the quantity and quality of spermatozoa. The most famous study in this respect was carried out in Germany on prisoners who had been sentenced to death (and who were obviously under extreme stress). These prisoners were given testicular biopsies and the study revealed a complete stop in spermatogenesis in all cases.
Research has also shown a much smaller volume of semen and a lower concentration of spermatozoa in a group of men suffering from chronic stress, and this has been attributed to low levels of LH and testosterone. However, the relevance of these research findings has not yet been determined in clinical tests.
- Other effects: in addition to direct effects, stress can also suppress libido and cause erectile dysfunction, resulting in a drop in the frequency of sexual relations, which in turn could reduce fertility. On the other hand, women often begin to eat excessively in response to stress, which can bring about an increase in the number of fat cells, disturbing the hormonal balance and consequently affecting fertility.
Infertility Treatment and Stress
Research has shown that women who undergo treatment for infertility have a level of “stress” similar to, and often higher than, women dealing with terminal diseases such as cancer or heart disease.
Stress and infertility often have a cyclical relationship, in that one makes the other worse, creating a vicious circle. Infertile couples suffering from stress as a result of their infertility begin to blame themselves for their infertility. This increases stress levels further and aggravates the problem even more.
What can you do?
"Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".
It is very important to differentiate between internal and external stress, in other words, to differentiate between the factors which cause stress which we can control, and those which we cannot. Internal stress arises when we are not able to achieve the goals we set ourselves, whereas external stress is generated by family members, friends, work, and so on. There are some factors which cause stress which we cannot do anything about – for example, the frustration a woman feels when her period begins. However, there are many other factors which can be controlled. Remember that there are no universal methods for controlling stress – what works for some people will not necessarily work for others. Here at Ginefiv you will always be able to count on the support of a psychologist if you need one.
On the other hand, some research in this area has shown that for many women, acupuncture may be of some help. In the studies which were carried out, women who were following a fertility programme were subjected to acupuncture treatments, just before and just after embryos were transferred to the uterus. The result was that the women who were treated with acupuncture had a significantly higher pregnancy rate – 42.5% compared to 26.3% in the group which did not have acupuncture.