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Fertility FAQ – Lifestyle

My husband and I have been trying for a baby for two years. My work is very stressful, and I’m concerned this could be affecting my fertility. Is this possible?

Both human and animal studies have demonstrated a negative effect of both acute and chronic stress on hormone production and fertility. Animal studies are much more convincing, given our ability to perform experiments in a very controlled environment. The difficulty with interpreting such studies is that stress is difficult to measure and what may be stressful to some is just a mere annoyance to others.

Likewise, different individuals will experience varying degrees of their own innate stress response (e.g., rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, upset stomach) when faced with the same unpleasant circumstances. What seems clear is that removing the stress, or learning to better cope with it, has a positive impact on fertility. For example, recent reports on the efficacy of teaching women how to elicit a relaxation response to previously upsetting situations using mind/body techniques supports the notion that thoughts influence the body’s physiology.

Is stress typically the sole cause of infertility? No. But it is an irrefutable contributor to fertility problems in many cases.

Can smoking contribute to infertility?

Virtually all scientific evidence points to the fact that cigarette smoking has negative effects on both female and male fertility.

Smoking appears to accelerate the loss of a woman’s eggs as she ages and may cause early menopause. It is also strongly associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. Women who smoke during pregnancy are known to have low birth weight babies and preterm labor and delivery. There is also an increase in sudden infant death syndrome in homes where a smoker lives.

Men who smoke are known to have lower sperm counts and more abnormal sperm than men who do not smoke. The direct effects of this on fertility are less clear, but the second-hand smoke that the female partner will be exposed to can create all the same problems as if she were smoking herself.

Ultimately, smoking cessation needs to be the goal, but significant reductions in smoking are believed to help fertility and should be attempted by all couples attempting to conceive who also smoke.

My husband and I are both overweight. Can this cause infertility?

Women and men who are overweight or obese have significantly lower pregnancy rates when compared to their normal-weight peers. Fat cells are hormonally active, making weak hormones on their own, converting some weak hormones in the blood to stronger ones, and acting as storage depots for many other hormones. In addition, women who are obese have much higher rates of ovulation problems, irregular periods and miscarriage. Even the most potent fertility treatment options, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), are less successful for women who are obese.

The good news is that weight loss through diet and exercise can reverse these negative effects. Several well-designed studies have documented improved success for infertility treatments with as little as a 5% weight loss. For a woman who weighs 200 pounds, that means losing 10 pounds.

The key concept with weight loss to improve fertility is to increase fat metabolism, that is, to burn fat even when weight may be stable. Individuals who exercise regularly quite often lose weight initially, then go through a period where their weight loss plateaus. As frustrating as this phenomenon can be, they are still benefitting from their workouts because they are still burning fat; it is just being replaced with muscle that is denser than fat.