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Published on June 27, 2014

Can Stress Cause Infertility?

There’s nothing more disappointing than a negative pregnancy test when you’ve been trying to get pregnant for months. And the longer you’re forced to wait, the more stress builds as a result.

Unfortunately, it’s a troubling pattern to get into; the greater the stress, the greater the chance that it’ll be even harder to get pregnant.

According to a recent study, researchers have discovered a connection between women with high levels of a stress biomarker and an increased risk of infertility. Although doctors have theorized about the role stress plays in infertility for years, this is the first study to provide scientific support.

“Stress, if very significant, can cause women to have difficulty ovulating,” said Dr. Larry Barmat, an OB/GYN who specializes in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Abington Reproductive Medicine. “Severe stressful situations will cause irregular ovulation or prevent ovulation and reduce one’s fertility.”

And the issue is a complicated one.

When meeting with a patient who’s having trouble conceiving, Dr. Barmat said one of the first things he determines is whether or not the woman is ovulating.

If she is ovulating and is under stress, it becomes more difficult to determine the true impact of stress on fertility because stress is so difficult to gauge objectively. “Everyone responds to stressful situations differently; someone may not appear stressed overtly, but internally, if you measure stress hormones, it can be high, and vice versa,” he said.

If a woman is not ovulating, it’s clear that stress is playing a role in the issue and that it should be controlled.

But what’s causing the stress in the first place?

While there are a number of potential causes of stress, Dr. Barmat said undergoing fertility testing and therapies is definitely one of them.

“It is very important as a reproductive endocrinologist to assess how a patient is handling their stress and address ways to manage it,” he added.

Other factors such as work, marital stress and other personal life stresses, might cause anxiety as well.

“In general, the American population is a relatively stressed population because everyone’s working very hard in this difficult economy,” he said. “There are a number of external and internal factors that are weighing heavily on patients.”

As a result, it’s imperative that patients and their doctors find ways to relieve the stress to improve their chances of getting pregnant.

At Dr. Barmat’s practice, the role of stress in infertility is taken very seriously. To help patients, they offer counseling by social workers and psychologists, support groups, and more. They also refer patients to acupuncture (some women find that it’s an effective method to reduce stress) and music therapists, which they found helped reduce stress and improve pregnancy rates during a study they conducted at Abington Memorial Hospital. 

Whatever the approach, Dr. Barmat said it’s important that the stress is properly managed. And as more research is conducted, doctors hopefully will learn more about the ways in which stress influences fertility, and how they can better help patients.

“It’s good we’re seeing more scientific studies evaluating this,” Dr. Barmat said. “We can begin taking a more active role in the methods to reduce stress.”  

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