The Role Genetics Play in Infertility
If you're having a hard time getting pregnant, it can feel like the world is against you. You're looking for answers—and they may be in your DNA. Common factors in infertility can be age, lifestyle choices and sexually transmitted diseases, but inherited genetic conditions and chromosome abnormalities passed down from family could also be why that stick isn't turning pink.
So let's jump into it.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility. While the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, evidence suggests that the disorder could be passed down from family members. If you have it, it's likely someone in your family does as well. PCOS causes a hormonal imbalance that affects ovulation, which makes it difficult to get pregnant. Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome include obesity, excess hair growth on the body or face, acne and, unfortunately, infertility.
Although PCOS is a genetic condition that can't fully be treated, there are ways to reduce symptoms. Some of these include hormone treatment, eating estrogen-friendly foods and exercising.
Early menopause (EM)
EM is premature ovarian failure. This means your body stops producing normal amounts of estrogen and doesn't release eggs regularly. If possible, ask your mother or grandmother if they went through it, as this trait is hereditary and could have been passed down to you. If asking your relatives isn't an option, you can have your doctor check your follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels and run other tests to see what might be going on. Symptoms of early menopause are hot flashes, irregular periods, weight gain, sleep problems, chills and mood changes.
EM is typically treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and the elimination of unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking and eating poorly.
Endometriosis is a condition in which the tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus instead. It can be painful for many women on a daily basis. Though the cause of endometriosis is thought to be hereditary, the exact cause is unknown.
If you have endometriosis and desire to bear children, there are surgical options in which endometriotic tissue can be removed without damaging the ovaries. If that surgery is unsuccessful, your doctor may recommend hormonal suppression therapy (an approach aimed at reducing androgens, or the "male" hormone).
Rare chromosome abnormalities
There are several kinds of rare chromosome abnormalities that can contribute to infertility issues, including:
- A missing piece of a chromosome (deletion)
- An upside-down chromosome (inversion)
- A change in the gene's DNA sequence (mutation)
- Too many or too few chromosomes (aneuploidy)
- Chromosome pieces attached to the wrong chromosome (translocation)
Some genetic disorders related to these chromosome abnormalities include:
Kallmann syndrome: A disorder that delays puberty due to a collection of mutated genes passed down from a mother's mutated ANOS1 gene. Most affected men and women become infertile if this condition is left untreated.
Primary ciliary dyskinesia: A disorder caused by mutated genes that leads to chronic respiratory tract infections, abnormally positioned internal organs and infertility. This condition causes abnormal cilia in the fallopian tubes, making it very difficult to conceive.
Cystic fibrosis: A condition that affects the body's ability to produce mucus, sweat and digestive fluids. Women with cystic fibrosis have thicker cervical mucus, making it harder for sperm to successfully make it to the cervix. It may take individuals with this disorder a long time to become pregnant.
What to do next
If you think you have one of these conditions or you've already been diagnosed with one, don't lose hope. About 95 percent of couples successfully conceive after trying for two years, even with mild genetic conditions.
Dig into your family tree and get tested for genetic disorders, chromosome abnormalities and fertility. Consider other contributing factors in your life as well, such as stress, the environment, diet and exercise.