According to a recent study published in the online edition of the Journal of Human Reproduction, too much stress can lead to infertility in women. In just one newspaper I looked at the opening lines state, “stress can make women infertile [and] those with high levels of a stress hormone stop ovulating and are therefore unable to conceive.” I think it’s time to take the foot of the throttle and look at what’s really going on.
In this particular study, what scientists found are that high levels of pre-conception stress more than doubles the chances of women failing to get pregnant after trying for a year. Now I should say at this stage that most of the 373 couples that fully completed the study (87%) did successfully conceive. It is also important to understand what is meant by the term ‘infertility’. Technically, a woman is described as being infertile if after 12 months of unprotected sex, they fail to conceive. It is not therefore a permanent arrangement.
Most studies are something of a balancing act. They have to take into account levels of intrusion, ethics, acceptability, cost, time and a host of other factors. What comes out of these studies is often something of a compromise, because that’s exactly how they began. Sometimes, if the outcomes look interesting there’s a chance that further studies with perhaps greater controls will be undertaken. It’s a slow, painstaking process and it’s the characteristic of much research. Of course the way findings are reported outside of the academic community is an entirely different issue.
In this particular study the research team used saliva samples from women in order to measure levels of alpha-amylase and cortisol, which can indicate stress levels. Two measures were taken and women were also asked to keep a daily stress journal. It was found that women with high levels of stress hormone were 29 percent less likely to get pregnant each month.
So what are the potential problems with the study? Well, as I’ve said, most studies are something of a compromise and in this case we could point out that taking just two samples (one at the start of the study and one after the first period), could influence findings. Are women trying to get pregnant likely to be particularly stressed in the early stages, or is this more likely as time moves on? Moreover, being asked to monitor your stress levels daily could become self-defeating in that it ultimately becomes stressful. We don’t know from the study the differences between those who did and did not conceive and we don’t know broader issues about mental health and overall wellbeing.
There are quite a few other things I could mention but I don’t want to be condemning of the research. I’ve had experience of research and I know just how tough a task it can be. I think studies like this help to highlight possible links between stress and conceiving but the answers aren’t conclusive. I’m also pretty sure the research team will have suspected as much before they undertook the task. What’s more concerning is the selective abstraction of results the media may use in order to promote a sensational headline. Some media reporting is sensitive and accurate, others less so.
Stress is potent force that can affect us in very many different ways. If you’re trying to conceive I think it’s important that you don’t stress over such reporting and remember that even within this study the majority of women trying to conceive were successful. There are many ways to reduce the negative effects of stress, which is partly what this site is all about!
Lynch, C.D., Sundaram, R., Maisog, J.M, et al. Preconception stress increases the risk of infertility: results from a couple-based prospective cohort study – the LIFE study. Human Reproduction. Published online March 23, 2014
Published On: March 25, 2014