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New study finds stress linked to delayed fertility in some women

Posted by Lara Salahi  March 25, 2014 08:56 AM

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It's a phrase that many women struggle to conceive hate to hear:  "Just relax, don't think about it so much and it'll just happen."  But a new study suggests there may be some truth to that often unsolicited advice.

Researchers at Ohio State University collected saliva samples  from 401 women ages 18 to 40 who wanted to get pregnant to test for two different stress hormones, cortisol and alpha-amylase. They then followed the women for up to a year and found that those who had high levels  of alpha-amylase took, on average, 29 percent longer to conceive compared to those with low levels of the stress biomarker.  Also, those with higher levels of the alpha-amylase in their saliva were twice as likely to qualify for an infertility diagnosis, meaning they were not able to get pregnant after a year of trying. 

This study, published Monday in the journal Human Reproduction, adds to mounting evidence that high levels of alpha-amylase could play a role some women's chances of conceiving. Another study published August 2010 in the journal Fertility and Sterility found nearly the same results -- of the 274 women they took saliva samples from, those with the highest concentration of alpha-amylase of were 12 percent less likely to conceive within six menstrual cycles. 

According to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, chronic stress increases the production of certain hormones in the body which can either delay or completely skip the time a woman releases an egg. 

So, do these findings mean women who are trying to conceive should heed that one-liner that implies that they're doing it all wrong? Not necessarily.  For one, the study could not prove that the stress causes infertility, just that there was a link detected in their relatively small sample of women they studied. Also, the researchers only tested stress levels at the start of the study, but we know that stress can increase the longer it takes to conceive; therefore, the study may not have accurately reflected the women's stress levels. 

While many physicians and infertility clinics ask couples about lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption and stress, they don't typically test for stress biomarkers as a method to diagnose couples with infertility. This study doesn't prove that they should start. There are other much larger factors involved that are known contributors to delayed pregnancy or infertility including genetics and physical conditions such as low sperm count or ovarian failure.

One of the most toxic aspects that couples who are trying to conceive face is the negativity and self-blame when their efforts don't result in a pregnancy.  There starts a viscous cycle -- feeling stress from not conceiving and feeling that a pregnancy is not happening because of stress.  In fact, many women treated for infertility have as much stress as women diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, according to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine offered some ways couples trying to conceive can reduce stress:

Talk to your partner.

Realize you're not alone. Talk to other people who have infertility, through individual or couple counseling, or support groups.

Read books on infertility, which will show you that your feelings are normal and can help you deal with them.

Learn stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, or acupuncture.Avoid taking too much caffeine or other stimulants.

Exercise regularly to release physical and emotional tension.

Have a medical treatment plan with which both you and your partner are comfortableLearn as much as you can about the cause of your infertility and the treatment options available.

Find out as much as you can about your insurance coverage and make financial plans regarding your fertility treatments.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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