stress and your sperm

The mere mention of the word stress usually elicits some kind of response from most people.

If you’re trying to conceive then chances are someone somewhere along the lines has given you that amazing piece of unsolicited advice “just relax”, because it’s that easy.

Couples who are trying to conceive know all too well that stress is a factor, but the irony of the situation is that when you’re not falling pregnant and you’re facing fertility treatment it can be the most stressful time of your life.  

So, does stress really affect male fertility and sperm health? Potentially, yes.

The reason we say “potentially” is because the research seemed to be quite sparce in this area with slightly conflicting results. Perception was also a key part of the research results that we looked at showing that a man’s perception of his stress levels was actually what impacted his results rather than the actual stressful event itself.

What we did find within the research were several studies and reviews which demonstrated that a man’s self-reported stress levels had a negative impact on his semen quality. Those who self-reported higher levels of stress had lower semen volume, lower sperm concentration and lower total sperm count.

A further study looking specifically at DNA fragmentation found that medium and high levels of occupational stress correlated to higher levels of DNA fragmentation.

Some research that we looked at also looked at the effects of stress on hormones within the body. One study which demonstrated a decrease in semen quality didn’t seem to find any correlation between stress and some sex hormones. However, another study explained in more detail how stress does affect hormones which potentially explains how semen quality is affected.

How stress affects your body and hormones

The stress response is an inbuilt part of our physiology. It’s there to protect us in times of danger and many of us know of it as the “fight or flight” response. Our response to stress stems from the core part of our brain known as the amygdala. When the amygdala senses danger, it sets off a cascade of physiological responses fuelled by hormones that are released into the blood stream mainly from the adrenal glands. This initial response is what creates the change in our blood vessels, heart rate and breathing. However, the hormonal response doesn’t stop there. If there is continued stress, the brain recognises this and through the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenals continues to pump stress response hormones into the body with the end result being raised cortisol levels.

So, how does this affect sperm heath? Well, one of the major side effects of the stress hormones that are released is the suppression of the Leydig cells within the testicles. The key role of the Leydig cells is synthesising testosterone and releasing it into the blood. Testosterone plays a crucial role in sperm development as well as libido and erectile function. Testosterone also works as a feedback hormone to the brain. When its levels are low, the brain works to produce more follicle stimulating hormone to promote further sperm production. All of this also impacts the Sertoli cells within the testicles which also assist in the production of sperm.

One of the major responses to stress is that our body diverts energy away from non-essential functions. This includes digestion, our immune system and, of course, reproduction. When our brain is in a perceived state of danger, it shuts down some of these less important roles until the danger has passed. The problem we have in modern society is that many of us live in a perpetual state of stress. Whether that be money worries, work stresses, time stresses and, of course, fertility issues, they all have the potential to produce a long-term stress response.

Looking back at the research it was fascinating that it was the “perception” of stress that seemed to be the key factor rather than the event itself. How you perceive your life and the events happening seems to be one of the key aspects to all of this. You may look at someone else’s life and think they’ve got it great, but actually they could be finding it incredibly stressful. Equally you may be taking everything in your stride with others looking at you, wondering how on earth you’re coping.

Long term effects of stress

Certainly, we know that long-term stress isn’t good for us. Long-term stress has been linked to other health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression and addiction. Stress also contributes to obesity and sleep issues. If you’re living in a constant state of stress for a long period of time, there is no doubt this will have a negative effect on your overall health and your fertility. Whether that be through disturbed sleep, lack of exercise, or poor diet choices; we all tend to make less healthy life choices when we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

How to limit the effects of stress

You really don’t have to look too far to find a wealth of information on how to cope with stress. From meditation to exercise there are all kinds of ways you can try and mitigate the effects of stress and they’re all pretty valid. What’s important is to find what works for you and to remember that most effects from stress can be overcome by better lifestyle and behaviour choices. Ideally, try and avoid the stressor in the 1st place, but if that’s work or fertility treatment itself, then that’s not going to be easy. Nevertheless, try and think about what things you can put in place to make life a little easier.

Here are a few top tips to help manage stress:

  • Regular exercise
  • Getting out in nature and fresh air
  • Maintaining a good sleep routine
  • Eating a healthy and balanced diet
  • Keep in touch with friends and family (as long as they’re not the stressor)
  • Talk to your partner about what’s going on for you
  • Find time for your hobbies and interests
  • Try mindfulness, meditation or yoga
  • Consider therapies such as reflexology, acupuncture, hypnotherapy or massage
  • Take time just for you

The list could go on and on, however, one important aspect of stress is the psychological element. Fertility treatment comes with its own unique challenges and stressors, and it can be incredibly isolating for men, with depression and anxiety being common amongst those trying to conceive. Typically, men aren’t the best at opening up and talking about their emotions, but there are places men can go to do this safely and without judgment.

Through testhim we host an online support group just for men. Our support groups are an informal and relaxed environment where there is no pressure for anyone to speak. Meetings are held on a monthly basis via Zoom so you can join with or without your camera, share experiences or advice or just listen in. This is a safe place for men to get support. To keep up to date with meeting dates make sure you sign up to our monthly newsletter or follow us on Instagram or Facebook

Fertility Network UK (FNUK) are also a great point of support to those trying to conceive. They have a free support line as well as masses of support materials on their website and YouTube channel. 

Another hugely valuable support mechanism is counselling. Anyone going through fertility treatment within the UK will be offered counselling through their IVF clinic. Unfortunately, this is often limited. Further counselling can be found through the British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA). This can be accessed as a couple or as an individual.

In summary

We think there’s more than enough evidence to show that stress definitely has a negative effect on sperm health.

One of the key elements is how you perceive life events. Therefore, working on your mindset and limiting stress will definitely help.  

Most effects from stress can be easily overcome with some simple lifestyle changes and by taking time for yourself. If, however, it’s getting too much, there is support out there, the most important thing is to reach out and access it.

Research reviewed:

Nordkap et al. (2016); Psychological stress and testicular function: a cross-sectional study of 1,215 Danish men. Fertil Steril 105: 174-187

Radwan et al. (2016); Sperm DNA damage-the effect of stress and everyday life factors. Int J Impot Res 28: 148-154

Lund et al. (2023); Perceived stress and semen quality. Andrology 11: 45-53

Collodel et al. (2008); Effect of emotional stress on sperm quality. Indian J Med Res 128: 254-261

Durairajanayagam (2018); Lifestyle causes of male infertility. Arab J Urol 16: 10-20