Want a baby? Get a massage

Could stress have an impact on fertility?


Catherine Price
September 4, 2007 11:00PM (UTC)

I'm surprised this one hasn't made it to the Times's most e-mailed list yet -- it's a conversation with Dr. Sarah L. Berga about how chronically high stress levels could adversely affect your fertility.

Berga, who's a fertility specialist and chairwoman and professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University, believes that chronic stress can "alter brain signals to the hypothalamus," the New York Times reports, which changes the way hormones are released in the body and, thus, could mess up your ovaries. What's the solution? Berga believes that for women whose infertility is caused by stress, the answer may be much less expensive and physically invasive than fertility treatment -- that is, cognitive therapy.

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Sound crazy? Her two published studies, while small, both suggest that she may be right -- in one 2003 study of 16 women, ovulation was restored in seven out of eight of the cognitive therapy group, compared with two out of eight in the control group. What's more, in 2006 she published a paper demonstrating that women who didn't ovulate had "excess levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their brain fluid."

The Times piece is just a short Q&A, but there's some interesting stuff in it, like the idea that combining stress, eating too little and exercising too much could have an impact on fertility that's greater than the sum of the individual parts. Berga describes a study of monkeys that found that about 10 percent stopped menstruating when chronically stressed, and about 10 percent stopped when their food was cut and their exercise increased. But add those three variables together, and 75 percent of the monkeys suffered from amenorrhea. Her work also suggests that exercise isn't always the stress reliever that we make it out to be -- if you're stressed when you start exercising, it's not going to help lower your stress hormones (which, as Berga points out, is a major reason many people start exercising in the first place).

Berga's work has been greeted with criticism -- including the assertion that she's going back to the Freudian notion that women can cause their own infertility by thinking antimaternal thoughts. (I don't know if I'd consider stress at work an "antimaternal thought," but hey, I guess I'm not Freudian.) Still, to me, her logic seems plausible. Of course there are plenty of women whose only hope for conception lies in in vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments. But why is it inconceivable that your stress level might affect your body's ability to conceive? After all, as Berga points out, we accept that stress has an impact on heart disease risk. Why not fertility?


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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