New research has identified a link between stressful life experiences for the mother during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy and a lower sperm count in male offspring.

The new study led by The University of Western Australia reveals the first few months of pregnancy is when male reproductive organs are at their most vulnerable stage of development.

The findings come from Western Australia’s Raine Study, a multi-generational study that recruited nearly 3,000 women in their 18th week of pregnancy between May 1989 and November 1991.

Long term study

The mothers completed questionnaires at 18 and 34 weeks’ gestation, and each survey included questions about stressful life events during the preceding four months of pregnancy. These events included death of a close relative or friend, separation or divorce or marital problems, problems with children, mother’s or partner’s involuntary job loss, money problems, pregnancy concerns, moving home or other problems.

A total of 2,868 children (1,454 boys) were born to 2,804 mothers and were followed by the researchers, making this the first study to investigate links between exposure to stressful life events in early and late gestation and male reproductive function in young adult men. When they reached 20 years old, up to 643 young and provided semen and blood samples for analysis.

Not the definitive cause

Study senior author Professor Roger Hart, from UWA’s Medical School and medical director of the Fertility Specialists of Western Australia IVF unit, pointed out that the researchers had found only an association between stressful life events in early pregnancy and reduced sperm quality and testosterone concentrations in offspring, not that one definitely caused the other.

‘We found that men who had been exposed to three or more stressful life events during early gestation had an average of 36 per cent reduction in the number of sperm in their ejaculate, a 12 per cent reduction in sperm motility and an 11 per cent reduction in testosterone levels compared to those men who were not exposed to any stressful life event during that period,’ Professor Hart said.

‘This suggests that maternal exposure to stressful life events during early pregnancy, a vulnerable period for the development of male reproductive organs, may have important life-long adverse effects on men’s fertility. This contrasts with the absence of any significant effect of exposure to maternal stressful life events in late gestation.’

Professor Hart said that exposure to stressful life events during early pregnancy was unlikely to be the sole cause of male infertility, but when added to other factors could contribute to an increased risk.

‘Like most things in life, if exposure to stressful life events in early gestation is added to other things that are known to affect men’s fertility, it may contribute to an increased risk of male infertility. These may include being overweight or obese, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sugar, or fat levels in the blood, or exposure to chemicals in the environment that interfere with natural hormones, both before birth and in adulthood,’ he said.

Improved pregnancy support needed

‘Our findings suggest that improved support for women, both before and during pregnancy, but particularly during the first trimester, may improve the reproductive health of their male offspring.

‘Men should also be made aware that their general health is also related to testicular health, so they should try to be as healthy as possible to ensure that not only do they have the best chance of maintaining fertility, but also of remaining healthy in later life.

‘To provide some perspective, the association between exposure to stressful life events and reduction in sperm counts was not as strong as the association between maternal smoking and subsequent sperm counts, as this was associated with a 50 per cent reduction in sperm number.’