Byline: By Madeleine Brindley Western Mail
The stress of modern life means less time and energy for couples, but it could also be making it physically harder to have children, an expert has claimed.
Dr Jacky Boivin, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, has established a link between stress and fertility problems.
She said that stress levels might be linked to a host of difficulties including low sperm count in men and an unhealthy lifestyle.
And it is feared that anxiety about not being able to conceive will add to overall stress levels, making it harder again.
Dr Boivin said, 'Stress does reduce fertility in humans - the more stressed you are, the less likely you are to conceive.
'And this happens both to people who are trying to conceive naturally and those undergoing fertility treatment.
'In the last decade men's sperm counts have decreased at a time when there's been an augmentation of stress levels.
'But at the same time men are becoming more stressed, there is more oestrogen in the water.
'There has been a decrease in the fertility of young people, which could be attributed to stress.
'But we have to keep stress in perspective - it won't stop you reproducing in the long run, but it may mean it takes longer.'
Research has revealed that, in animals, the hormonal response to stress interacts with the hormonal system involved in reproduction.
But although a similar process is evident in humans, the impact of stress on reproduction is more complicated, and has a lot to do with how individuals handle stress - some people thrive on it, while others cannot tolerate the slightest hint of stress.
In terms of assisted conception, where there is a 25% chance of becoming pregnant per cycle of treatment, Dr Boivin said the impact of stress can be to reduce that chance to 21%.
But being 40lb overweight can lower that chance to 17% and smoking to 18%.
Speaking for National Infertility Day, she said, 'In terms of why stress is associated with a lower pregnancy rate, there are a number of reasons.
'If people are trying to conceive naturally and are really stressed, they tend to be ambivalent about having a child, and, as a result, they focus their efforts to conceive at the wrong time of the month.
'When people are under a lot of stress their lifestyle may be unhealthy - they eat on the run, smoke more and don't exercise.
'All of these factors are known to affect fertility - it may not be the stress directly but it is compromising reproductive health.
'And, for people undergoing treatment, stress may compromise the chances of conceiving by causing people to prematurely leave the programme before they can get pregnant.'
Dr Boivin said it was impossible to calculate how much stress is needed to start impacting on our reproductive ability, but she said certain types of stress, especially personal or marital stress for women, were likely to have an impact, in terms of how long it takes them to fall pregnant.
She said that, for couples trying to have a baby, it was important to identify any avoidable stresses and also consider what impact they are having in terms of lifestyle, which can have a more critical effect on the body.
But she added, 'Whatever you do to reduce stress, you should do it to improve the quality of your life, rather than just to increase the chances of pregnancy.'
Dr Boivin was recently awarded the Society for Reproductive and Infant Psychology Award for her 'outstanding contribution to research and scholarship in the area of reproductive psychology'.
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