What lifestyle and environmental factors may be involved with infertility in females and males?

Your lifestyle or environment could affect your fertility.Research consistently shows that lifestyle factors—what you eat, how well you sleep, where you live, and other behaviors—have profound effects on health and disease. Fertility is no exception.

A number of lifestyle factors affect fertility in women, in men, or in both. These include but are not limited to nutrition, weight, and exercise; physical and psychological stress; environmental and occupational exposures; substance and drug use and abuse; and medications.1

For example, research shows that:

  • Obesity is linked to lower sperm count and quality in men.
  • Among women with obesity who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), losing 5% of body weight greatly improves the likelihood of ovulation and pregnancy.
  • Being underweight is linked to ovarian dysfunction and infertility in women.
  • Strenuous physical labor and taking multiple medications are known to reduce sperm count in males.2
  • Excessive exercise is known to affect ovulation and fertility in women.
  • Research shows that using body-building medications or androgens can affect sperm formation.
  • Substance use, including smoking tobacco, using other tobacco products, marijuana use, heavy drinking, and using illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine reduce fertility in both men and women.
  • Having high blood pressure changes the shape of sperm, thereby reducing fertility.2
  • The type of underwear a man chooses is not related to his infertility.3
  • Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can cause infertility in females and males. Those who have to undergo these types of treatments may want to consider fertility preservation.

NICHD research also shows that exposure to persistent organic pollutants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in the environment can also affect male and female fertility.

Persistent organic are currently used or were formerly used in industrial processes and remain in the environment much longer than other chemicals. Animal studies suggest that exposure to certain persistent organic pollutants affects fertility. NICHD's Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment (LIFE) Study is examining whether exposure to persistent organic pollutants affects the length of time it takes for couples to become pregnant, a measure of fecundity. It is the only study to measure chemicals in both partners and to follow couples trying to become pregnant for 1 year.

So far, the study has found that certain kinds of organochlorine pesticides and many polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were linked to increased time-to-pregnancy or decreased couple fecundity.4 The study found that many chemicals only affected time-to-pregnancy when found in high levels in the male partner, whereas other chemicals only affected fecundity when detected in the female partner. Other studies have linked exposure to TCCD dioxin and select polybrominated diethers and perfluorochemicals to reduced fecundity.5

EDCs alter the function of the hormonal system, a key component in fertility. The LIFE study found that the EDC methyl paraben affects fertility in women, while phthalates and the UV filter benzophenone-2 affect fertility in men.6,7,8  


  1. Sharma, R., Biedenharn, K. R., Fedor, J. M., & Agarwal, A. (2013). Lifestyle factors and reproductive health: Taking control of your fertility. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 11, 66.
  2. NICHD. (2015, March 15). Physical labor, hypertension and multiple meds may reduce male fertility. Retrieved December 19, 2016, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/030915-male-fertility.aspx
  3. Zimmerman, R. (2016, July 18). Caffeine? Boxers or briefs? Laptop use? Study seeks clues to fertility, including men's [Blog post]. Retrieved December 19, 2016, from http://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2016/07/18/fertility-study external link
  4. Buck Louis, G. M., Barr, D. B., Kannan, K., Chen, Z., Kim, S., & Sundaram, R. (2016). Paternal exposures to environmental chemicals and time-to-pregnancy: Overview of results from the LIFE Study. Andrology, 4(4), 639–647.
  5. Buck Louis, G. M. (2014). Persistent environmental pollutants and couple fecundity: An overview. Reproduction, 147(4), R97–R104.
  6. Buck Louis, G. M., Sundaram, R., Sweeney, A. M., Schisterman, E. F., Maisog, J., & Kannan, K. (2014). Urinary bisphenol A, phthalates, and couple fecundity: The Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment (LIFE) Study. Fertility and Sterility, 101(5), 1359–1366.
  7. Buck Louis, G. M., Kannan, K., Sapra, K. J., Maisog, J., & Sundaram, R. (2014). Urinary concentrations of benzophenone-type UV filters and couple fecundity. American Journal of Epidemiology, 180(12), 1168–1175.
  8. Smarr, M. M., Sundaram, R., Honda, M., Kannan, K., & Buck Louis, G. (2016). Urinary concentrations of parabens and other antimicrobial chemicals and their association with couples' fecundity. Environmental Health Perspectives. Advance online publication. doi:10.1289/EHP189
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