Study: Stress Impacts Fertility Success

ByAlexa Pozniak

Oct. 11, 2001 -- Stress can take its toll on the body, triggering headaches, fatigue, and even back pain at one time or another. Now doctors are adding infertility to the list.

According to a study released today in Fertility and Sterility, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have discovered that stress negatively impacts a woman's chances of becoming pregnant using fertility treatments.

"Stress is big factor in why women don't conceive," says Dr. Ronald Young, director of gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "There's a long history of this."

The study followed 151 women from different fertility clinics throughout California over the course of five years. The researchers kept track of the women's overall fertility, while periodically evaluating their moods, fluctuations, feelings of optimism, perceptions and feelings about infertility, social support networks, stress, and methods of coping.

Physiological Changes

The amount of stress the study participants were feeling influenced the number of eggs retrieved and fertilized, the number of embryos transferred the birth weight of the baby, and the likelihood of multiple pregnancies.

High levels of stress meant fewer eggs were retrieved and fertilized in the process, and fewer embryos transferred.

Women who were hostile, angry, and depressed had fewer fertilized eggs. Feelings of guilt in connection to discontinuing treatments were also associated with slightly lower birth weights.

And women who said they'd do anything for a child had a five times higher chance of having a multiple birth than other women had.

"In response to stress, the brain changes its production of neurotransmitters, which influences the production of hormones from the pituitary gland, and this in turn impacts the production of eggs," says Dr. William Keye, director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

"Women can also experience changes in blood flow to the uterus in response to stress," adds Keye. "This affects implantation because the uterus doesn't become very receptive to eggs. And contractions inside the uterus may become more frequent, which makes it less likely for a woman to become pregnant."

Don't Worry, Be Happy

On the other hand, women who felt optimistic about becoming pregnant showed an increase in the number of eggs that were fertilized, plus an increase in the number of embryos transferred.

"What the study shows is probably what every woman undergoing fertility treatments is wondering: 'Is my psychological state going to affect the outcome of this treatment?,'" says Alice Domar, director of the Infertility Program, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Keye says women going through fertility treatments need to be as well-informed as possible, and also make changes in their life to make it less stressful.

"This will reduce their anxiety and stress because they're not facing a big unknown," he says. "They also need to obtain counseling from an infertility specialist so they have realistic expectations of their cycle. They should also organize their life in such a way to minimize the everyday stress while they're going through treatments. Pick a time when you don't have a lot of demands in life."

Domar says women are paying a lot of money for this treatment and should take the necessary steps to make it work.

"It's to everyone's advantage to work to decrease stress," says Domar. "You have to take the mind into account whenever you do something to your body."