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WOMEN who are struggling to get pregnant could improve their chances of conceiving by having stress-reducing therapy sessions, scientists claim.
Researchers in the US found that rising levels of stress can lower a woman’s fertility by disrupting her menstrual cycle, and in some cases prevent ovulation completely. But a pilot study of women who had not had a period for at least six months found that psychotherapy had a dramatic effect, lowering stress levels and restoring fertility in 80 per cent of cases.
Scientists believe between five per cent and 10 per cent of women experience a loss of periods at some time, and in most cases the cause is poor nutrition or over-exercising. But a much larger number of women are believed to suffer a mild disruption to their periods that adversely affects their fertility.
Professor Sarah Berga, who led the study at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, said psychotherapy could be a viable alternative to expensive and often complex fertility treatment. She said that people often tried to deal with stress by exercising, but experiments showed that this only raised stress levels further. Likewise, lounging around at home was not enough to reduce anxiety.
In the study, the scientists monitored women with a condition called functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA), which is caused by a drop in GnRH, a hormone that stimulates ovulation. None of the women had a period for more than six months. Tests on the women revealed that they had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Professor Berga split the women into two groups of nine. Half received 20 weeks of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that was designed to adjust their way of thinking and reduce their stress levels. The other half did not receive any therapy.
Prof Berga said: “A staggering 80 per cent of the women who received CBT started to ovulate again, as opposed to only 25 per cent of those randomised to observation.” Tests showed that those who had become fertile again had far lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of GnRH.
Although none of the women, who were aged 20-35, were asked whether they were trying for a baby, two became pregnant within two months of the therapy sessions ending. “People are disbelieving that stress is a cause of infertility.
“The nail in the coffin is that reducing cortisol causes the GnRH signal to ramp up,” Prof Berga said.
· Ian Sample