We Can't Stress This Enough: Shed Stress to Improve Fertility
About one-third of infertility cases stem from problems with men's reproductive systems, according to the National Institutes of Health. As if the purely physical reasons that contribute to infertility—excess weight, unhealthy diet, medical conditions—aren't enough, mental issues, such as stress, can contribute, too.
Men who want to conceive a baby with their partner must ensure their gamete production is in tip-top shape. Healthy, motile sperm are vital to conception—but quantity is just as important. Think in terms of probability: The more quality sperm you have, the more chances you have of getting a partner pregnant. Too little sperm can decrease the likelihood of getting pregnant because there are fewer opportunities to fertilize the egg. Remember, it takes only one sperm to fertilize a woman's egg.
There are many physical ways for men to improve sperm health, including maintaining a healthy weight, eating a nutritious diet and incorporating movement into their routine. The mind is very important when attempting to increase sperm health, too, which is why managing stress can increase male fertility rates.
So stress can be detrimental to conception? Yep. But if you can improve your mental health, you can increase your chances of fertility.
How can stress decrease male fertility rates?
Increased mental stress has been shown to impact several important parameters for healthy sperm and semen, according to urologist and pelvic surgeon Rena Malik, M.D., based in Baltimore and Columbia, Maryland.
"This includes semen volume, sperm morphology [shape], motility [proper movement] and sperm count, which can impact the ability for a sperm to fertilize or reach an egg," she explained.
Experts aren't entirely sure how stress affects the health of sperm, but researchers suggest stress may cause steroid hormones, such as glucocorticoids, to release, which can decrease testosterone levels and, by extension, sperm production.
Additionally, Malik said, studies have shown that severely depressed patients have reduced testosterone levels, which can impact the ability to produce sperm and cause a reduced concentration of sperm in the semen.
"In fact, specifically, stress related to a job, adverse life events and little/no social support can adversely affect semen quality," Malik concluded.
How can men reduce stress?
While stress is unavoidable, men who experience higher levels of stress can work toward reducing those levels in their everyday lives and while trying to conceive.
"It helps not to put pressure on yourself to eliminate it," said Lillian Rishty, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist at NYC Therapy Group in Midtown Manhattan. "Stressing about being stressed adds a whole new level of unnecessary stress. This meta-stress involves thinking about how stressed you'll potentially feel and the harmful effect it will have on your body and your life."
She added that men typically find it far more helpful to acknowledge and accept their emotions—taking control by saying, "It is what it is" or "It's okay, I'm dealing with a lot right now"—than to attempt to analyze every thought and feeling.
Men have several other helpful actions at their disposal to reduce stress while trying to conceive.
Any form of exercise can increase your endorphins, according to the Mayo Clinic. Whether you're going for a run or a nature walk, you can pump up these feel-good neurotransmitters.
Breathing exercises, such as breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly, can help your body and mind relax.
Classes for mindfulness meditation can be found just about everywhere. Studies indicate mindfulness lessens the body's response to stress and may have beneficial residual effects throughout the body.
Spending time outdoors has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety. "Heart rate, blood pressure and self-report measures provide the most convincing evidence that spending time in outdoor environments, particularly those with green space, may reduce the experience of stress and, ultimately, improve health," stated a 2018 study published in Health & Place journal.
Stress can lead to sleep loss, and sleep loss can lead to stress. That's why it's important to maintain healthy sleep habits to keep stress at bay.
Most men turn to physical health to improve their fertility rates, but managing their mental health is just as important. If they don't feel like they can destress on their own, seeking help from a therapist or healthcare provider can provide them with other coping mechanisms.
"If you're struggling with fertility, don't wait to see a urologist to get evaluated to rule out other causes of infertility," Malik said.