While a couple may be unable to conceive for any number of reasons, many are related to basic anatomical issues. Conditions must be just right for conception, so if any of the functions are off it can make achieving pregnancy quite the challenge.
One cause of female infertility that is more common than you might realize is something called hostile cervical mucus, often referred to as a hostile uterus.
Though the term is casually interchanged with hostile uterus, it’s very specifically related to the fluid secreted by the glands of the uterus. Known as cervical mucus or cervical fluid, it is what helps the sperm reach the fallopian tubes to fertilize an egg.
The texture, thickness and consistency of cervical mucus changes throughout a woman’s cycle. As she gets closer to ovulation and is the most fertile, the mucus typically becomes clear, thin and watery to help move the sperm along. For 20 percent of women, however, this change does not occur and the mucus may actually become thicker. The consistency of hostile cervical mucus prevents the sperm from penetrating and may even destroy it.
There are several factors that may cause the body to produce hostile cervical mucus, therefore having a hostile uterus. Hormone imbalances are most common, with low estrogen the biggest factor. Estrogen, which is the primary female sex hormone, is responsible for the regulation of the female reproductive system. Women with premature ovarian failure, anorexia, or who are using gonadotropin hormone medications often have imbalances characterized by low estrogen.
Reduced pH of the cervical mucus is another issue. Certain infections, like bacterial vaginosis, can change the acidity of the reproductive system; sperm best respond to an alkaline environment. Infections must be taken seriously, because if left untreated they can do permanent damage. An infection like pelvic inflammatory disease spreads from the vagina up into the uterus and fallopian tubes. This can cause damage to the tubes, therefore making it impossible for the sperm to penetrate. These uterine infections can cause infertility and must be treated promptly.
Other causes of hostile cervical mucus include the presence of inflammatory cells in the cervix that cause the mucus to thicken. They can even produce an immune protein, or antibody, that coats the mucus and attacks the sperm directly.
With appropriate medical treatment, hostile cervical mucus can be corrected. First, your doctor will want to confirm the source of the problem by testing a sample of cervical mucus 8-12 hours after intercourse to check the motility or movement of the live sperm. If less than 20 actively moving sperm are found per field, your doctor will likely encourage further testing and treatment.
Doctors often prescribe Ethinyl estradiol, a synthetic estrogen that increases the fluidity of the mucus. A popular, more natural approach is evening primrose oil. This herbal supplement, which should be used under the guidance of a medical professional, is believed to improve the quality of the cervical mucus and even make it more fertile. If these approaches don’t work, an intrauterine insemination (IUI) is often successful. Because the sperm is injected directly into the uterus, it bypasses the hostile mucus altogether.
Even if a woman is able to successfully conceive, she may encounter further problems with her uterus. Increased hormone levels, particularly progesterone related to fertility treatment, can create what is known as an inhospitable uterus for an embryo to implant.
Other medical issues, such as polyps, scar tissue, and endometriosis, can create hostile environments for an embryo. Some conditions, like pelvic inflammatory disease, are very treatable when caught quickly and can be managed with a round of antibiotics.
If you’ve been struggling to conceive or maintain a pregnancy and are exploring alternative family building options, contact our team. We are here to help you determine the best next steps and keep moving forward.
All Things Conceivable is a blog dedicated to sharing the knowledge and expert opinions of the dedicated team at ConceiveAbilities, a Chicago-based egg donation and surrogacy agency.