The Truth About Stress and Infertility: How Strong Is the Link?
Men and women are equally likely to have fertility problems, and one cause for this is our modern work-life stress.
What Is Infertility?
Most people have a strong desire to conceive a child and start a family, at some point in their life. And most couples will achieve pregnancy within one year of trying, with the greatest likelihood of conception occurring during the earlier months.
Based on this, infertility is defined as the inability to conceive within 12 months of trying for the same.
Women who can conceive but are unable to carry a pregnancy to term may also be diagnosed as infertile.
A woman who has never been able to get pregnant is diagnosed with primary infertility while those who have had at least one successful pregnancy in the past are diagnosed with secondary infertility.
Infertility isn’t just a woman’s problem. Men can be infertile too. In fact, men and women are equally likely to have fertility problems.
What Are the Causes of Infertility?
Apart from stress, there are a variety of risk factors, medical conditions, and medications that can affect fertility. Some of these are:
- Infrequent menstrual periods
- History of pelvic infections or sexually transmitted disease
- Uterine fibroids or endometrial polyps
- Less sperm count, or uneven shape of the sperm
- Movement of the sperm
How Does Stress Affect Fertility?
Stress is a major cause for infertility in couples today. Stress releases hormones which impact the body’s natural ability to reproduce as they interfere with ovulation, fertilization, and implantation.
If one’s work schedule or lifestyle leads to frequent late nights with early wake-up calls, the constant lack of sleep can affect the body, including one’s fertility.
When people are stressed, they also tend to eat lesser than healthy ways.
Constant stress has been shown to lead to weight gain and obesity which in turn are linked to fertility problems.
Just as eating too much junk food or being overweight can cause fertility problems, weighing too little or not eating enough can also affect the reproductive potential.
For example, if one is stressed out, they may:
- Sleep too much, or sleep too little
- Give into emotional eating or not allow enough time to eat right
- Not find enough time for exercise
- Consume too much caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco
- Lose interest in physical intercourse
How Can This Be Managed?
There are several factors causing this stress.
Couples are focussed on their careers and have demanding, stressful jobs. Working women may not want to sacrifice their jobs for childbearing.
There is also a lot of pressure from parents and extended families and even peers to get pregnant.
Trying to conceive can be stressful, particularly if one is aware of the conditions affecting their fertility, are undergoing IVF treatment, or have suffered a miscarriage in the past.
To prevent stress, there is a growing trend amongst women to freeze their eggs or embryos. This enables them to have a baby when they want to, without being limited by their biological clock.
It is equally important to understand the problem and the exact line of treatment along with the risks.
Couples must take detailed counseling sessions while opting for IVF and must be told about the causes of infertility, treatment options, costs attached, and the treatment calendar.
The process of IVF itself can be emotionally draining and many couples find it tough to deal with it.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and making time for some exercise, along with yoga or meditation can greatly help stay relaxed. Exercise releases endorphins, which help elevate the mood and destress.
Stress is the only external factor affecting fertility and being stress-free improves the chances of conception.
Fertility problems can have a significant psychological as well as emotional effect on those who are trying to conceive. Typical reactions include depression, anger as well as loss of self-confidence.
Infertility is a silent struggle that can toughen up every aspect of one’s life— from the way they feel about themselves and their relationship with the partner.
There needs to be increased awareness around fertility preservation technologies available and those undergoing treatment must be counseled and supported.
Being diagnosed with infertility doesn’t mean that the dream of having a child has come to an end.
It may take some time, but several couples who experience infertility will eventually be able to have a child, either on their own through medical assistance.
( Dr. Pankaj Talwar is the Head of Medical Services, Birla Fertility & IVF, Gurgaon, and the Sr. Vice President of the Indian Fertility Society and Founder Secretary of the Fertility Preservation Society of India. He is also the recipient of the Vishisht Seva Medal, awarded by the President of India.)
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