Why stress is bad for couples trying to get pregnant

For most couples on this side of the world, the essence of marriage is mostly for procreation. This might explain why a lot of pressure is put on a newly-wed couple when nine months after walking down the aisle, family and friends are yet to be invited for a christening. Sadly, most times the woman bears the brunt of the strain. While some are lucky to have understanding family members and in-laws, others are not so fortunate and as if the absence of a child is not enough source of worry for the woman, she is further stressed out with ultimatums, accusations and emotional abuse by family members from both sides as well as society.

Sadly, people are quick to erroneously label a couple (most times the woman) as infertile, without understanding what and who may be the cause, at what point to begin to worry and what allowing the woman go through stress does to further complicate matters.

According to an expert at the Trucare Fertility Clinic, Victoria Island, Lagos State, a couple may begin to worry about fertility problems if they have been trying to conceive for over six months.  “Infertility is the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse or the inability to carry a pregnancy to term. This definition is reduced to six months for women over 35 years, those with a history of painful periods, irregular cycles, pelvic inflammatory disease and miscarriages, and couples who know that the male partner has a low sperm count,” he said.

Though most are quick to point the finger at the woman when this is a case of childlessness, Dr Adewale Adejumo says fertility is not primarily a women’s health issue. “For almost half of infertile couples, the cause is related to the male partner (either alone or in addition to a female factor). When a couple have fertility concerns, we recommend that both the male and female partner have full consultations in order to determine the most effective treatment approach.”

Though there have been many sited causes of infertility some of which include age, diet, STDs, environmental factors, drugs, biological/hormonal dysfunctions and even unexplainable reasons, new research findings show that stress can also affect a woman’s ability to conceive. The findings of this research were published in the 2014 online edition of the journal Human Reproduction.

In this study, scientists measured levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme in saliva that provides a biological indicator of stress. The researchers discovered that women with high levels of the biomarker were 29 per cent less likely to get pregnant each month than those with low levels. They were also more than twice as likely to be declared infertile.

The team tracked 373 American women, aged 18 to 40, who were free from known fertility problems and had just started trying to conceive. Their progress was followed over a period of 12 months, or until they became pregnant.

Each participant was given one saliva test on enrolment and another after the start of their first recorded menstrual cycle. Measurements of two stress markers, alpha-amylase and cortisol, were taken.

Lead researcher of the study, Dr Courtney Denning-Johnson Lynch, from Ohio State University in the United States of America, said: “This is now the second study in which we have demonstrated that women with high levels of the stress biomarker salivary alpha-amylase have a lower probability of becoming pregnant, compared to women with low levels of this biomarker.

“For the first time, we’ve shown that this effect is potentially clinically meaningful, as it’s associated with a greater than two-fold increased risk of infertility among these women.”

Besides having an adverse effect on the natural method of conception, stress can also impact a woman’s chances of getting pregnant should she decide to go for treatments such as IVF and IUI. “There are a wide range of treatments available for infertility, depending on the cause or causes. These include medication, surgery to correct physical blockages and treatments such as IVF and IUI.

“However, the more stressed you are, the more difficult the experience of IVF is likely to be,” Dr Adejumo said.

In addition, anthropologists posit that when a woman is stressed, the brain sends signals to the body to prevent conception.

Though in today’s fast-paced world where stressful situations are a norm and its management is usually poor, it is important that couples looking to get pregnant take things slow and reduce stress triggers, especially for the women.

Although it may seem easier said than done, the fact remains that poorly managed stressful situations is not healthy and should be cut off. Not only does one live a healthier life when stress is reduced and well-managed, it also improves the quality of the person’s life.

Besides other daily physical stressors, worrying about the state of infertility can also be a source of mental and emotional stress which would contribute and possibly aggravate the state of infertility.

In cases where stressful situations are totally unavoidable, for instance on a job or life in a busy metropolitan city, a change to how you react to stressful situations is recommended. Psychologist, Mr Kayode Adetunji, said, “when faced with an ongoing stressful situation, there is only one thing you have control over – how you react. Getting control of how you react will have a big impact on what happens inside of your body when a stressful situation presents itself. Also, in managing stress, you can develop a practice or habit that helps you to reduce stress. Activities such as exercise, prayer, sleep, reading a book or spending time with loved ones can do the trick.”