10 Causes of Infertility
We know that infertility is generally tied to hormonal or structural problems in one or both partners, that’s common sense, right? And we know that these problems can arise in any of the reproductive structures or systems in either or both parties. But what causes these abnormalities and are there ways to improve your chances of conception? Well, that depends on what’s going on, and the first step to answering that question is scheduling a visit to see your healthcare provider. But, before you run off to don that oh-so-stylish hospital gown and subject yourself to an examination, read on to learn about some of the most common contributing factors and causes for infertility. We may just be able to give you a little insight and provide a starting point for a productive conversation with your doctor.
First, The Basics
Before you move on to the list of things that can contribute to infertility, let’s cover some basics. Approximately 1/3 of infertility cases are caused by a female factor, 1/3 by a male factor, and 1/3 by a combination of male and female factors or unknown causes.1 Approximately 10-13% of women in the United States struggle with infertility each year and approximately 10% of men do.1-3 So, obviously, this problem does not belong to one sex more than the other and, it’s incredibly common to be struggling with fertility issues. So, don’t feel like you’re alone in this, it’s not unusual by any means and is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
We’d also like to mention that if you’re struggling with mental health or marital/relationship issues related to infertility, that’s common too, and we recommend you reach out to your healthcare provider, or a non-profit that specializes in infertility, to get the help you need. They may recommend counseling or other mental health exercises to help soothe the uncomfortable emotions that often accompany fertility struggles.
As promised, here we will go through a list of some of the most common causes and risks for infertility. Some causes are female and some are male, but most are applicable to both sexes. As you read, be encouraged that if you identify with something on this list, then there are likely steps you can take to overcome the issue. Let’s dive in!
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a disorder in which women experience a host of reproductive and endocrine health issues because of hormonal abnormalities. Most women with PCOS struggle to maintain regular menstrual cycles and therefore have unpredictable ovulation. Without the correct hormone cycles, it’s very difficult to achieve and maintain pregnancy because hormones are what drive the physical reproductive systems.1
If you or your partner thinks PCOS may be at the root of your conception difficulties, talk to your doctor right away. There are many treatment options available for women with PCOS who are trying to conceive.
- Hot, Crowded Balls
We’re serious, ok? It’s actually not a joke. The reason that a man’s testicles hang down below his abdomen rather than living up inside, is that sperm need to maintain a slightly lower temperature than the rest of the body to be healthy and viable. Crowded and overheated testicles can lead to damaged sperm that can’t do their job.3-4
To keep your sperm happy, avoid tight, non-breathable pants, shorts, etc., and limit your time in hot tubs, saunas, and other extremely hot places. Your swimmers will thank you!
- Substance Abuse
Illicit drug use, overconsumption of alcohol, or inappropriate use of prescription medication can drive infertility for some individuals. As you probably know, substance abuse can cause a host of physical problems, ranging from kidney disease to liver failure…to infertility.1,4
If you or your partner is struggling with substance abuse problems, we recommend getting professional help for this before you pursue pregnancy. Not only will having a healthier body and mind produce a healthier baby, but it will also enable better parenting. Pursuing pregnancy in unsafe circumstances such as in the presence of maternal, or even paternal, substance abuse issues is never a good choice for the baby.
Smoking cigarettes can increase your risk of experiencing infertility and/or exacerbate existing infertility issues.1,4 Cigarette smoking causes widespread inflammation and puts your body under a lot of stress. There is a reason that long-term use of cigarettes often leads to cancer…it’s a toxic habit that compromises the health of organ systems throughout the body.
Our bodies prefer ideal conditions for reproduction and may not reproduce as well under chemically stressful conditions such as those induced by smoking. Cutting out cigarettes will help your body put energy back into your reproductive organs and create a healthier environment for both parents and baby.
- Getting Older
In terms of living your best life, 35 may be the new 25, but biologically nothing has changed. Age is a hugely significant factor in infertility, with women being at increased risk after age 35 and men being at an increased risk after age 40.1,4
If you and your partner are considering trying to conceive and one or both of you are at an advanced maternal/paternal age, then contact your healthcare provider right away. Your doctor can help you to be proactive and make smart fertility choices as you pursue parenthood in this phase of life.
Yup, unfortunately. Sexually transmitted infections can put individuals at increased risk for fertility issues, even after the infection has been dealt with.1,4 Depending on the type and severity of the infection, an STI can cause structural damage, such as scar tissue, that may cause fertility issues for the rest of that person’s life.
If you and/or your partner have a history of an STI(s), then be sure your doctor(s) is made aware so they can take this history into account when considering your fertility issues. If you don’t have a history of STIs and you’re unsure about your partner’s history, then ask them. If you’re not in a monogamous relationship, then be sure to use protection and practice safe sex if you are sexually active. And of course, if you think you may have an STI, or if you’ve had unprotected sex with someone you think could have had one, then get tested right away.
- Unhealthy Body Weight
We believe in pursuing your best life and living unhindered by your body size regardless of whether you’re a clinically healthy weight or not. However, when it comes to fertility, our bodies pay a lot of attention to our size. Both obesity and being underweight can cause issues with fertility. Fat tissue is very hormonal and having too much or not enough fat can cause hormone issues that may decrease your ability to conceive.1,4
If you and/or your partner are not at a medically healthy weight, then pursuing weight change may be very beneficial for your fertility. Even small losses or gains (depending on what’s needed) can have a drastically positive effect on your fertility. These weight changes need to be pursued in a healthy way though, or they may do more harm than good. If you feel uncertain about how to pursue weight changes healthfully, then contact your health care provider for support and guidance or schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian who specializes in fertility and/or weight management.
It seems like it would be common sense, but that’s not always the case, so let’s discuss it. If you or your partner has sustained an injury to your reproductive organs, then that can certainly affect your fertility.1,4 These injuries could be the result of disease, surgery, abuse, or even a car crash or other type of accident.
If you suspect that this may be a factor in your fertility struggles, then speak with your healthcare provider about it. Make sure that your provider has all pertinent medical records, especially those pertaining to the injury, and don’t be afraid to ask for a physical examination or other tests if you think they may be needed. A good doctor can help you to determine if your injury could be a factor in your struggles to conceive and will guide you through getting any necessary tests and procedures necessary to determine if it is.
This stress can be emotional, physical, or environmental. Really anything that causes your body to have to work extra hard just to live life is a stressor. Stress can cause our bodies to produce inflammatory chemicals that induce a fight or flight response, which is not ideal for people trying to conceive since the body is disinclined to reproduce in this state.1,4
If your stress levels are up, try and find ways to bring them down. Getting adequate sleep, exercise, and healthy foods can go a long way in helping the body to destress. Other methods to reduce stress can include things like meditation, lightening your schedule, and making time to spend with people and/or activities that you enjoy.
- Poor Diet
Last, but certainly not least is diet. Studies show that there are strong links between diet and fertility for both men and women. Eating a diet high in processed foods, refined grains, sugary beverages, and unhealthy fats can cause problems with fertility.5
If you want to improve your chances of conceiving through what you eat, research shows that you should reduce your consumption of red and processed meat, as well as full-fat dairy. You should increase your intake of healthier proteins such as beans, nuts, seeds, and fatty, cold-water fish. Opt for whole grains over refined ones and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Most researchers agree that the Mediterranean Diet, or a similar eating pattern, is a good model to follow.
So that’s it! This is by no means a comprehensive list of things that can contribute to infertility or subfertility, but these are some of the top contributors. If you read this and identified one or more items that you think may be a factor in your fertility difficulties, then we hope we’ve given you the knowledge and power to help address those issues so that you can move forward in your amazing journey toward parenthood a little less hindered. Maybe you’ve even found the information that will help you clear the hurdle and make a healthy, beautiful baby!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods, is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- Infertility. Infertility | Office on Women's Health. https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/infertility. Published February 2021. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Sandra Ann Carson MD. Diagnosis and management of infertility. JAMA. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2781637. Published July 6, 2021. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Cleveland Clinic. Male infertility: Causes & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17201-male-infertility#:~:text=Infertility%20affects%20one%20in%20every,to%20conceive%20suffer%20from%20infertility. Published 2022. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Cleveland Clinic. Infertility causes: Types, risk factors, diagnosis & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16083-infertility-causes. Published December 2020. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Panth N, Gavarkovs A, Tamez M, Mattei J. The influence of diet on fertility and the implications for Public Health Nutrition in the United States. Frontiers in public health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079277/#:~:text=Diets%20high%20in%20unsaturated%20fats,outcomes%20in%20women%20and%20men. Published July 31, 2018. Accessed June 9, 2022.