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The links between obesity and infertility

Celeste Hebets, P.T.

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 and can even contribute to infertility problems. The causes for infertility in men and women are different.

Infertility in men            

Being overweight raises estrogen levels in men, reducing the number of sperm produced. This reduces the chances of a successful fertilization. Obesity also slows down metabolism and leads to an increased risk of erectile dysfunction (ED). A study performed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that an increase of 20 pounds 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. Another link between obesity and infertility is the increased likelihood of diabetes. The resistance to insulin experienced by diabetics affects the DNA within the sperm, damaging its genetic information. Healthy and active sperm are necessary for fertilization and pregnancy.

Reducing the amount of fat around the testicles and keeping the numbers down on the scale can keep sperm counts up and lower the chances of sexual dysfunction.

Infertility in women

Estrogen levels also are increased in women who are overweight. 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. It may even prevent an egg from being released. Approximately 15 percent of ovulation disorders are linked to being overweight and obese.  

Another common cause of infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which affects one in 15 women around the world. PCOS leads to obesity in many women and also can develop because of substantial weight gain. Like men, women who are obese are more likely to develop diabetes. In women, the high insulin levels of diabetes triggers hormonal changes in the pituitary gland that disrupt proper functioning of the ovaries. A study by the Johns Hopkins Children's Center found that ovarian function and fertility mostly are regulated by the pituitary gland and obese women have the highest chance of irregular pituitary glands.

Maintaining a healthy weight is an important step to increase the frequency of ovulation and create the best conditions for pregnancy.

Surgery could be the option for you

Weight loss oftentimes is one of the best solutions to weight-related health conditions. By learning to manage a balanced diet and implementing an exercise regimen, unwanted weight should begin to decrease. Losing weight is beneficial for almost all health related problems, especially infertility issues. Once you’ve identified these lifestyle factors and have improved upon them, the extra weight should slowly start to creep off. If these tips, complemented with an exercise regimen and proper diet, don’t help, then bariatric surgery might be the answer for you.

If you are considering weight-loss surgery, Flagstaff Medical Center’s Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center offers free information sessions the second Tuesday of each month from 6 - 7 p.m. These sessions include a presentation by our surgical staff on the causes of and complications related to morbid obesity, as well as the types of surgeries available. To register to attend a free information session, call 928 214-3737. To learn more about the program, visit

Celeste Hebets, P.T., is a physical therapist and coordinator of FMC’s Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center. Is there a health topic you’d like to know more about? Please write to Mountain Medicine, c/o FMC Public Relations, 1200 N. Beaver St., Flagstaff, AZ 86001, or visit