Guest column: The links between obesity and infertility

Having a child is both a rewarding and life-changing experience for many couples. But what if the joy of conceiving a child is unattainable for you and your partner?

Numerous reasons could be to blame, but one obvious health problem many people forget about is weight. Weight problems, especially obesity, can cause many health risks for both men and women, including infertility. The causes of infertility in men and women are different.

Infertility in men

Excess weight raises estrogen levels in men, which can decrease sperm production. Low sperm count reduces the chances of a successful fertilization. Obesity also leads to an increased risk of erectile dysfunction. A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study found that a 20-pound weight gain could increase the chance of male infertility by approximately 10 percent. This is largely due to excessive fat deposited around the testicles that raises the temperature of the testes to a level that can kill sperm. Obesity also is linked to an increased risk of diabetes. Diabetics' insulin resistance affects the DNA within sperm, damaging its genetic information. Healthy, active sperm are necessary for fertilization and pregnancy.

Reducing the amount of fat around the testicles and keeping the scale numbers down can help raise a man's sperm count and lower his chances of sexual dysfunction.

Infertility in women

Estrogen levels also rise in overweight women. High levels of estrogen interfere with ovulation. Without successful ovulation, a woman cannot become pregnant. Ovulation disorders are the leading cause of female infertility, resulting in an imbalance of hormones and irregular menstrual cycles. An ovulation disorder may even prevent an egg from being released. Approximately 15 percent of ovulation disorders are linked to excess weight and obesity One Johns Hopkins Children's Center study found that ovarian function and fertility mostly are regulated by the pituitary gland, and obese women are at high risk for pituitary gland irregularity.

Another common cause of infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome, which affects one in 15 women around the world. PCOS also can develop due to substantial weight gain.

Women who are obese are more likely to develop diabetes, just as men are. However, in women, high insulin levels trigger hormonal changes in the pituitary gland that disrupt proper ovarian functioning. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important step to increase ovulation frequency and create optimal conditions for conception and pregnancy.

Gigi Sorenson, R.N., M.S.N., is the director of Flagstaff Medical Center's Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center.


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