Stress can make women infertile, research has revealed.Scientists found that those with high levels of a stress hormone stop ovulating and are therefore unable to conceive.

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Women with hectic jobs are those most at risk, and are often most in denial about the stress in their lives, say researchers. They also found that simple ‘talking therapies’ can reverse the effect of stress and boost a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant.

The research was presented yesterday at the annual conference of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology in Prague. Professor Sarah Berga, from Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, studied 16 women in their twenties and thirties who were normal weight but had not had a period for six months. She found they had high levels of the hormone cortisol which is linked to stress. Eight of the women were given cognitive behavioural therapy and the rest no treatment. The therapy was designed to give women a better sense of perspective and improved self-worth to help cut stress levels. But Professor Berga said it did not involve telling women to ‘pull themselves together’.

‘This population actually looks very well pulled together,’ she said. ‘They don’t report stress. They say everything is just fine. It may be the fact that the people who say everything is fine are the most stressed.

‘They have unrealistic attitudes about themselves and others and think they can get more done in the day than is realistic, and their sense of worth depends on achievement.’

‘We know that lifestyle factors can influence the menstrual cycle’

Twenty weeks later the researchers found 80 per cent of those given therapy had started ovulating again compared with 25 per cent in the other group. Two months later two of the women became pregnant. Professor Berga said that although the study involved women whose monthly cycle had stopped, the findings may apply to other women who have fertility problems which are harder to discover because they still menstruate.

‘It is quite possible there are many individuals who could benefit from stress reduction in terms of infertility therapies,’ she said.

She now plans a bigger study to see if they can repeat the results in many more women.

‘If the larger scale study confirms our earlier results, we will have very strong evidence for offering stress reduction as an effective therapy for a significant group of infertile women.’

Dr Mark Hamilton, chairman of the British Fertility Society, said: ‘About 20 per cent of women who are infertile have problems with ovulation.

‘Many of those are related to weight, but a number do have problems with ovulatory function.

‘We know that lifestyle factors can influence the menstrual cycle, so it’s appropriate that medical practice takes account of that, and cognitive behavioural therapy is one approach that could be helpful.’

Laughter can be the key to success in IVF treatment, it was claimed yesterday.

One infertility clinic found pregnancy rates soared when patients were visited after treatment by a comedian who cracked jokes and performed magic tricks.

The doctor behind the approach said it showed humour can cut stress levels and boost the chances of success.

Dr Shevach Friedler of the Assaf Harofeh Medical Centre in Zerifin, Israel, released details of the study at Prague conference.

He said 93 women were visited by the comic while they were lying down for 15 minutes after embryos were implanted into their womb.