The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Stress Can Double the Risk of Infertility

High levels of stress make it more difficult to become pregnant.

Trying to get pregnant can be stressful. I spent almost two years trying to conceive a baby using in vitro fertilization (IVF) and know first hand the anxiety that every stage of the IVF process creates. With each failed IVF attempt, the stakes seemed to get higher and the stress of trying to get pregnant took a physical and psychological toll. Being in a race against the fertility clock is more stressful than any athletic competition I’ve ever done.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until we had kind of thrown in the towel—and with very low expectations and nonchalance—decided to "give it one more try" that the mother of my daughter became pregnant. I feel extremely fortunate that my daughter is a healthy, happy, and thriving 6-year old now.

Being Stressed About Being Stressed Creates a Double Whammy

A new study has found that stress can double the risk of infertility. The researchers found that high levels of stress make it much more difficult to get pregnant. The findings from the new study by researchers at Ohio State University appear online in the March 2014 journal Human Reproduction.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Unfortunately, for anyone struggling to get pregnant there is a potential unintended backlash that these findings will create more stress. Being stressed about being stressed creates a double whammy. I have written a wide range of Psychology Today blogs that offer practical advice on ways to reduce stress. Please see a list of further reading at the end of this post if you’d like to learn more.

Courtney Denning-Johnson Lynch, director of reproductive epidemiology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and colleagues found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase—a biological indicator of stress measured in saliva—are 29 percent less likely to get pregnant each month and are more than twice as likely to meet the clinical definition of infertility, compared to women with low levels of the stress biomarker.

For this study the researchers tracked 501 American women ages 18 to 40 years who were free from known fertility problems and had just started trying to conceive. They followed participants for 12 months or until they became pregnant as part of the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment (LIFE) Study. Saliva samples were collected from participants the morning following enrollment and again the morning following the first day of their first study-observed menstrual cycle.

"This is now the second study in which we have demonstrated that women with high levels of the stress biomarker salivary alpha-amylase have a lower probability of becoming pregnant, compared to women with low levels of this biomarker. For the first time, we've shown that this effect is potentially clinically meaningful, as it's associated with a greater than two-fold increased risk of infertility among these women," said Lynch, the principal investigator of the LIFE Study's psychological stress protocol.

Conclusion: Daily Habits of Mindset and Behavior Can Greatly Reduce Stress

The researchers hope that these findings will encourage women who are experiencing difficulty getting pregnant to consider managing their stress using stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

Stress is contagious. Ideally both partners should strive to reduce stress levels and free-floating anxiety. Dr. Lynch emphasizes  that couples should not blame themselves if they are experiencing fertility problems, because stress is obviously not the only—or even the most important—factor involved in a woman's ability to get pregnant.

Germaine Buck Louis, who is the LIFE Study's principal investigator, concluded, "Eliminating stressors before trying to become pregnant might shorten the time couples need to become pregnant in comparison to ignoring stress. The good news is that women most likely will know which stress reduction strategy works best for them, since a one-size-fits-all solution is not likely.”

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

more...

Subscribe to The Athlete's Way

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?