Depression is an illness that radiates into every aspect of life, dimming the pleasure found in work and relationships. Because many women live with depression for much of their lives, they may wonder, can depression affect getting pregnant? In other words, can mental illness cause or contribute to infertility?
Let's start by defining infertility. According to The Office on Women's Health, if you're under 35, infertility means you've tried for a year without results. (Keep in mind that this doesn't mean you won't get pregnant, just that you might consider seeing a fertility specialist.) For women over 35, six months of unprotected sex that doesn't lead to conception prompts a visit to the fertility doctor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around six percent of married women aged 15 to 44 are infertile, and almost seven million women have sought fertility services at some point. So if you seek out a fertility specialist, you're by no means alone.
Romper spoke with Dr. Maria F. Costantini-Ferrando of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey (RMANJ) about the possible connection between depression and fertility. She writes in an email that though doctors don't yet know enough to draw certain conclusions, some data might indicate a relationship. For instance:
"We know hormone levels in depressed people fluctuate greatly; infertility is basically an imbalance of hormones caused by mixed signals coming from the brain that impact the reproductive system. Depression may also lead to a lowered sex drive, increased drinking, smoking, and poor nutrition, all of which can have a bad effect on getting pregnant."
On the connection between anxiety disorders and fertility, Costantini-Ferrando notes that while no studies have proven a cause-and-effect relationship, elevation of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline could potentially have a negative impact on your reproductive system.
Costantini-Ferrando is a researcher as well as a practicing fertility specialist, and recently presented new research at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine establishing that "whatever the association between stress and infertility may be ... treatment can overcome these issues. In other words, your true reproductive potential will not be decreased by your degree of psychological distress."
In particular, she suggests in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment for patients suffering from infertility (which may or may not be caused by depression), because IVF balances the hormonal environment.
Unfortunately, infertility may also cause anxiety and depression in women, as noted by Harvard Health, which mentioned a 200 couple study in which half of the women surveyed described their fertility struggle as "the most upsetting experience of their lives." That's serious stuff, and Costantini-Ferrando urges doctors and patients not to forget the possible psychological consequences of infertility. RMANJ offers support groups to patients undergoing fertility treatments, as well as psychological counseling, yoga, and acupuncture for stress management.
A CDC survey showed that one in 10 women ages 18 to 44 suffered depression last year. Though depression may or may not directly affect a woman's ability to get pregnant, fertility treatments are still a viable option.
Costantini-Ferrando signs off with these words: "The world of infertility can feel like a very lonely one, but it does not have to be."
If you're struggling with trying to get pregnant, you can find help. Resolve.org is the website of The National Infertility Association, offering resources and support groups across the country to women struggling with this heartbreaking issue.
Be sure to speak with your doctor if you're suffering from depression and/or infertility. Nobody should have to suffer alone and your mental health is worth reaching out.