Fertility 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.
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).