Male infertility could start in the womb

Researchers have recently discovered fertility problems in men whose mothers experienced a traumatic event during pregnancy.

The study found a reduced sperm count in men whose mothers were exposed to stress during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy. This probably occurred because the male reproductive organs develop in the first few months of pregnancy.

The findings from the Australian Raine Study recruited nearly 3,000 pregnant women in the early 90’s. These mothers completed questionnaires at 18 and 34 weeks gestation. Each survey included questions about stressful life events (SLEs) during the preceding four months of pregnancy.

Now 20 years later, 643 men aged 20 were tested for sperm quality and testosterone levels. The findings showed poor sperm quality and lower testosterone in those whose mothers were exposed to stress during early pregnancy.

These SLE’s included:

  • Death of a close relative or friend
  • Separation/divorce/marital problems
  • Problems with children
  • Involuntary job loss
  • Financial problems
  • Pregnancy concerns
  • Moving home

Professor Roger Hart, University of Western Australia said, “This suggests that maternal stress during early pregnancy is a vulnerable period for the development of male reproductive organs. This may have important life-long adverse effects on men’s fertility. This contrasts with the absence of any significant effect of exposure to maternal stressful life events in late gestation.”

Dr. Elvira Brauner, added, “It is likely that women have always been exposed to stressful life events during pregnancy. However, the World Health Organization has described a general upward trend in stress over time. The additional effect of a SLE during pregnancy might be more pronounced in women who are already stressed.”

There is an overall decline in male infertility and the stress of modern living could be a contributing factor.

Professor Hart said, “Improved support during the first trimester, may improve the reproductive health of their male offspring.”

So the message to potential mums is to avoid stress where possible. That said, of course, SLEs are unavoidable. So perhaps the answer lies in reducing overall stress so that SLE’s have less of a traumatic effect.

General advice on reducing overall stress includes:

  • Try deep-breathing exercises, yoga, or stretching. Get regular exercise such as swimming or walking
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Improve your sleep: try going to bed earlier
  • Join a support group – either online or in person
  • Talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns and causes of stress

This last point is probably the most important, especially where the cause of stress is health-related. Healthcare professionals are best equipped to reassure you with information regarding your particular pregnancy.

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