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Seasonal Variation in Human Reproduction: Environmental Factors

Almost all human population exhibit seasonal variation in births, owing mostly to seasonal variation in the frequency of conception. This review focuses on the degree to which environmental factors like nutrition, temperature and photoperiod contribute to these seasonal patterns by acting directly on the reproductive axis. The reproductive strategy of humans is basically that of the apes: Humans have the capacity to reproduce continuously, albeit slowly, unless inhibited by environmental influences. Two, and perhaps three, environmental factors probably act routinely as seasonal inhibitors in some human populations. First, it seems likely that ovulation is regulated seasonally in populations experiencing seasonal variation in food availability. More specifically, it seems likely that inadequate food inatake or the increased energy expenditure required to obtain food, or both, can delay menarche, suppress the frequency of ovulation in the nonlactating adult, and prolong lactational amenorrhea in these populations on a seasonal basis. This action is most easily seen in tropical subsistence societies where food availability often varies greatly owing to seasonal variation in rainfall; hence births in these populations often correlate with rainfall. Second, it seems likely that seasonally high temperatures suppress spermatogenesis ecough to influence the incidence of fertilization in hotter latitudes, but possibly only in males wearing clothing that diminishes scrotal cooling. Since most of our knowledge about this phenomenon comes from temperate latitudes, the sensitivity of spermatogenesis in both human and nonhuman primates to heat in the tropics needs further study. It is quite possible that high temperatures suppress ovulation and early embryo survival seasonally in some of these same populations. Since we know less than desired about the effect of heat stress on ovulation and early pregnancy in nonhuman mammals, and nothing at all about it in humans or any of the other primates, this is an important area for future research. Thrid, correlational data suggest that there may be some degree of regulation of reproduction by photoperiod in humans at middle to higher latitudes. Populations at these latitudes often show a peak in presumed conceptions associated with the vernal equinox. On the other hand, evidence gathered by neuroendocrinologists tends to argue against reproductive photoresponsiveness in humans.