Stress and Infertility


Until very recently, doctors said stress didn’t have an effect on infertility – especially because often-stressful new fertility treatments, like IVF and intrauterine insemination, could work so well for patients suffering from an inability to conceive.

Now, however, doctors are reexamining the role that stress plays in fertility, and are discovering that stress may actually have a hand in up to 30% of all infertility problems.

Doctors are still researching how exactly stress affects fertility. It’s possible that the hormones cortisol and epinephrine, which increase in the body during stressful times, have an effect on a woman’s ability to conceive. One recent study at Atlanta’s Emory University studied 16 women who hadn’t had a period in six months to determine their levels of cortisol. They all had high levels of the stress hormone, and none of them ovulated, suggesting that there’s a link between high cortisol levels and lack of ovulation. After eight of these women were given cognitive behavioral therapy for 20 weeks, 80% of them began ovulating, as compared to 25% in the group that did not receive therapy. Two months later, two of the women got pregnant.

Many women are told to handle the stress of infertility by “relaxing,” or “pulling themselves together.” This attitude can actually lead to more stress, doctors say, because women then keep stress to themselves rather than talking about it, and they “pull themselves together” by attempting to push their feelings down inside. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help address these feelings, and let women know that it’s all right to feel stressed about infertility – that they don’t need to hide their feelings.

Emory professor Sarah Berga said the stress-therapy study’s findings could also apply to women whose monthly periods are more regular than the women’s in the study: it’s possible that cognitive behavioral therapy could alleviate these women’s stress, too, and improve their patterns of ovulation.

Doctors also think that stress reduction might help activate proteins within the uterine lining that can assist in implantation of an egg. It also could increase blood flow to the uterus, which may also assist in conception.


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