Oh baby! Did you know immune function can affect fertility?

Unexpected resultFertility issues can cause a lot of heartache for couples who are having difficulty conceiving.  According to the CDC, about 10% of reproductive-age women are infertile.  Infertility, however, is not always simply an endocrine imbalance.  Chronic stress and immune system status are two factors that can affect fertility and are often overlooked.

Infertility can be separated into male and female factor infertility.  Male factor infertility is more easily diagnosed, identified by changes in the count, mobility, and shape of the sperm. Female factor infertility is typically more difficult to assess.  Most cases are caused by ovulatory problems including irregular or absent menstrual cycles, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis. Other risk factors for female factor infertility include poor diet, athletic training, and being under/overweight.  However, immune system imbalances and chronic stress can affect fertility and contribute to conception issues, as well.

Figure 1. During the luteal phase and during pregnancy, the immune system should be biased toward a Th2 response.

Figure 1. During the luteal phase and during pregnancy, the immune system should be biased toward a Th2 response.

During the luteal phase of a woman’s cycle and during a healthy pregnancy, the body’s regulation of Th1/Th2 immune balance changes.  To promote pregnancy, the body increases Th2 immune activity and naturally suppresses T cell Th1 activity (Figure 1) and decrease the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines.   This is important because too much Th1 activity may lead to rejection of an embryo.  In fact, heightened Th1 activity has been noted in women with recurrent pregnancy loss and implantation failure.  Examples of Th1 activity include the cytokines TNF-alpha, IL-2, and INF-gamma and are commonly seen with chronic inflammation.  A rise in Th1 activity can also be the result of adrenal fatigue.

Adrenal fatigue is an indicator of stress.  Stress is a broad-spectrum risk factor for infertility.  Many things can lead to additional stress on the body including damaged GI tract, underlying inflammation, environmental toxin exposure, adrenal fatigue, disrupted thyroid function, or sympathetic dysfunction.

For additional information on some infertility connections, see Module 3 of the Reproductive Endocrinology Curriculum: Hormones throughout the Life Cycle: Cycling Females (log-in required).

References:
Joon Yun, et al. (2004). Autonomic dysfunction may be an under-recognized cause of female fertility disorders.  Medical Hypotheses, 63(1):172-7.
Kwak-Kim JY, et al. (2003). Increased T helper 1 cytokine responses by circuating T cells are present in women with recurrent pregnancy losses and in infertile women with multiple implantation failures after IVF. Hum Reprod, 18(4):767-73.
Makhseed, M, et al. (2001).Th1 and Th2 cytokine profiles in recurrent aborters with successful pregnancy and with subsequent abortions. Hum Reprod, 16 (10): 2219-2226.
Polgar K, et al. (1996). Immune interferon gamma inhibits translational mobility of a plasma membrane protein in preimplantation stage mouse embryos: a T-helper 1 mechanism for immunologic reproductive failure.  Am J Obstet Gynecol, 174(1 Pt 1):282-7.
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3 Responses to Oh baby! Did you know immune function can affect fertility?

  1. Pingback: The Dirty Truth About Roundup - It Destroys Fertility | Holy Hormones Journal

  2. Rachel Stofocik says:

    Hello, I appreciate this article. I have been suffering from severe GI dysfunction for over a year and I believe it is all related to my endocrine system. While I have always had digestive problems, I was completely asymptomatic when I was pregnant and breast feeding. Now that my daughter is four my GI symptoms are more severe. I actually swell up for some of the month–stomach, intestines and entire body even though my diet is highly restricted. If you have more information that you could direct me to, I would greatly appreciate it.

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