Research published this month in the science journal Human Reproduction has shown that women with high levels of stress may see their chances of conceiving reduced by as much as 30 percent.
Researchers led by a team at Ohio State University examined data from 501 couples who had been trying to conceive and who were enrolled in the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment (LIFE) study between the period 2005 and 2009.
As part of this data gathering process, the couples were followed for one full year as they tried for a baby. Female participants, who were all aged between 18-40 and had no underlying fertility issues, gave saliva samples every morning they were enrolled in the study. Via these samples researchers were able to measure key “biomarkers” for stress like cortisol and alpha-amylase levels.
The researchers had previously investigated what they found to be a significant link between high levels of stress and a reduced likelihood of a successful pregnancy. However, this research looks at how a woman’s chances of conceiving might be affected by stress.
Among the 401 women who ultimately completed the study, 347 managed to get pregnant while 54 did not. The researchers took this data and analysed the saliva samples of the 13% of women involved in the study who had not fallen pregnant, comparing that to the rest of the participants who did.
They found that women who had the highest levels of the of the enzyme alpha-amylase were 29% less likely to get pregnant each month when compared to women with the lowest levels. More than that, the women in this group had more than double the chance of falling within the clinical definition of infertility, which is defined as a woman not being able to conceive after a period of 12 months where she engaged in regular, unprotected sex.
Even when researchers adjusted for key concerns like age, income and race, as well as other health factors like alcohol and caffeine intake, as well as smoking, the link held.
However, the researchers didn’t find any significant link between cortisol and the chances of getting pregnant. Given cortisol’s already established negative impact on the body, we might ask whether had the study period been longer or more wide ranging a cortisol link might have been found, but that will be for future research to determine.
Lead researcher Dr Courtney Lynch is quoted as saying that this recent study serves to support the notion that higher levels of alpha-amylase may be a “potentially clinically meaningful” marker for fertility problems.
Some groups not connected with the study have also said that, while the research focused on a relatively small group, it does add weight to the notion that stress could be a problem for couples looking to conceive. Others, however, have cautioned that the study could actually exacerbate the problem.
Researcher Jacky Boivin of Cardiff University and the author of a paper that showed stress does not appear to significantly affect fertility in couples undergoing IVF (which due to the highly managed nature of IVF does not necessarily translate as a competing result), worries that the findings could exacerbate existing fears and compound the problem. In effect, knowledge that stress could be detrimental to a couple’s chances of conceiving could make them more stressed. She identified several areas that couples might focus on instead, saying stopping smoking is one key way couples could increase their chances of successfully conceiving.
However, co-author Germaine Buck Louis, of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has stated a different view that “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.”
Lynch has supported this approach. She believes that taking action to reduce stress is a reasonable step, but should be treated as just one area in which couples can hope to improve their chances of conceiving and should not be obsessed over, as that will only make the problem worse.
Lynn suggests “Things like yoga, meditation or regular daily exercise have been shown to reduce stress,” but emphasizes that it will have to work into your daily routine and be appropriate for you. As has become readily apparent before now, there’s no catch-all remedy for stress.
While this research is limited and a relatively small study, it does perhaps provide a wake-up call not just about pregnancy but making sure that we take time for ourselves and get a handle on the levels of stress we feel. In a world where technology means we can always be connected, it might also emphasize the need to disconnect not just for our immediate family-planning goals, but for establishing good and healthy habits even before we start thinking of having children.
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