Increasingly, more women are choosing to have children later in life. I know, because I am one of the women who made that choice.
Increasingly, more women are choosing to have children later in life.
In many ways, this is a good thing—we may have a career under our belts, we are done sowing our wild 20-year-old oats, we have probably settled down, and by now, we are more likely to know what we want for our lives.
But the flip-side of that choice is that, often, we have left it until it's too late. Our bodies do not remain the baby-making machines they were in our 20s. When we were younger, in our prime baby-producing years, we didn't think about the impact of time and age. Yes, we saw wrinkles appearing, grey hairs sprouting, and gravity eventually taking its toll, but we forgot about what was happening inside.
I know because I am one of the women who made the choice to wait before trying to get pregnant. Below, you'll find what I did and what I learned along the way.
Human Egg Production: Facts and Figures
At Birth: When a female is born, she already has all her eggs in her basket, for want of a better description. In other words, she is born with all the eggs that she will produce during her lifetime, nestling in her ovaries amongst minuscule cavities called follicles. This is called the ovarian reserve. She has millions of eggs, but most will be reabsorbed into her body before she even reaches puberty. Weird thought, I know, but there you are. Still, on reaching puberty, she will have about 300,000 eggs in her reserve.
At Menarche (First Menstruation): Usually, when a girl starts menstruating at about age 12, she will release a fertile egg once a month. Her body also releases something called a follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and this, as its name suggests, stimulates the follicles to prepare and release the egg. At this age, her body is something of an over-achiever and can afford to be, so several dozen follicles are stimulated into producing one of the fine eggs.
During Adulthood: During our egg-producing years, we will probably release only about 400 of the eggs in our original ovarian reserve. As we get older, that reserve decreases. While males can continue producing sperm their entire lives, a female's egg reserve decreases more rapidly with age.
The Ovarian Reserve, Over Time
What happens to all those hundreds of thousands of eggs we had in the ovarian reserve, you ask? The ones that were waiting to be released? They just die off, naturally. We lose about a thousand of those under-achievers a month. Many women mistakenly assume that because they are still ovulating and producing an egg every month that their reserve is just fine, thank you very much, but this is not the case.
- In our 20s, we will have that fantastically high reserve.
- By the age of 30, we will only have about 12% of our reserve left.
- By the age of 40, we will only have about 3% of the total number of eggs we started with.
Diminished Ovarian Reserves (DOR)
Yes, by age 40, a woman's ovarian reserves are a mere 3% of what they once were. This is known as diminished ovarian reserves (DOR). Given that more and more women are choosing to start families in their mid-to-late 30s or even early 40s, we can see why it is so hard for them to get pregnant with ease.
Added to that, it is not only the quantity but the quality of the eggs that we produce which diminishes over time.
Why I Decided to Try DHEA
But all is not lost. Below I share some fascinating facts regarding supplements that can help a woman's ovarian reserve, even in her 40s. The Center for Human Reproduction (CHR) has been conducting research into the use of a supplement called DHEA in women with DOR, with very hopeful results. Their studies show that ovarian function may be regained, even at a (*cough*) advanced age.
What Is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an androgenic hormone that is converted into testosterone and estradiol in the body. In other words, it is a “prohormone,” a hormone that helps produce other hormones. It is an endogenous (originating from within an organism, tissue, or cell) steroid hormone and one of the most abundant steroids in the body. It is produced in the gonads, the adrenal glands, and in the brain.
My Review of DHEA: The Good and the Bad
The pros of taking DHEA
Taking DHEA has been shown to. . .
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- improve the quantity and quality of eggs and embryos
- increase the chance of getting pregnant during IVF
- decrease the chances of abnormalities in the chromosomes of the embryos
- reduce the risk of miscarriage
- increase the chance of getting pregnant naturally
Other reported beneficial side effects:
- increased feelings of well-being
- a feeling of being mentally sharper
- feeling physically stronger
- increased libido
The cons of taking DHEA
DHEA may cause. . .
- some of your hair (on your scalp) fall out
- oilier skin than normal (increased break-outs in spots or acne)
- upset stomach
- increased blood pressure
- irritability or sleeplessness
- increase in growth of facial or body hair
- changes in menstrual cycle
- facial hair, deepened voice
- increased levels of androgen and increased risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including prostate, ovarian, and breast cancers
(These side effects are not conclusive, but studies into these benefits are ongoing.
I can confirm the heightened sense of well-being and the increase in libido.)
What the Studies on DHEA Show
During clinical trials conducted at the Center for Human Reproduction, women with diminished ovarian reserve (DOR) took DHEA as a supplement over a period of a few months, with some noteworthy results: their egg quality, as well as quantity, was radically improved. The trial results showed that women who had taken DHEA produced more fertile eggs, confirming that ovarian function benefitted from the supplement. Women in their early 40s were producing eggs that matched those of much younger women.
In another study, 120 women were divided into two groups, one using DHEA. In that group, the pregnancy rate more than doubled.
Tests have also proved that miscarriage rates were significantly lower in women taking DHEA.
If you'd like to take a look at the research, follow the links below:
- DHEA was seen to improve the likelihood of IVF/ICSI success in patients with diminished ovarian reserve: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Does dehydroepiandrosterone improve the pregnancy rate in women undergoing IVF/ICSI with expected poor ovarian response? A randomized controlled trial.
Questions About Taking DHEA for Fertility
Does DHEA increase fertility?
DHEA has been shown to improve egg and embryo quality, increase pregnancy rates, reduce the time it takes to conceive, and reduce miscarriage rates. It is particularly effective for women with low ovarian reserves.
How much DHEA should I take, and for how long?
The Centre for Human Reproduction recommends a dosage of 25mg taken three times per day (totalling 75mg), for four months.
These trials are also quite recent (as recent as 2010) and are ongoing, so there are no known effects of the long-term usage of DHEA. At this time, it is not advisable to take the supplement for extended periods of time.
What are the side effects?
Of course, like any supplement, there are side effects (including oily skin and acne, hair thinning, upset stomach, high blood pressure, fatigue, and menstrual changes) but these seem minimal.
Were there drastic side effects?
I did not experience any adverse side effects such as acne or hair loss. I only noticed the feeling of well-being and an increase in libido, but everyone is different, and it does not affect everyone in the same manner.
When should I start taking DHEA?
It is advisable to begin taking the supplement a few months before you try to conceive to give the supplement a chance to have a significant effect on your body.
How do I know if it is working?
If possible, I would have my ovarian reserve checked (you can take a blood test for this) and then test it again after taking DHEA for about four months.
Will my doctor prescribe DHEA?
At present, some doctors are still not familiar with the benefits of DHEA or are hesitant to prescribe it because the long-term effects are not yet conclusive.
While some doctors may not yet know about DHEA, more and more health practitioners are acknowledging the incredible benefits of this supplement and are prescribing it to their patients.
Do you need a prescription?
In some countries, you need a prescription for DHEA, while it is not available at all in others. It has been banned in professional sports because it is viewed as a steroid.
The results, at this stage, may be deemed ‘inconclusive’ to some, but the results are being seen: many women with low ovarian reserves are managing to get pregnant using DHEA, which is currently also being prescribed by the CHR for women who have high follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels.
Note: I am not a medical practitioner and do not prescribe medication to anyone. This is my own research and my own testimony.
Answers to Additional Questions About Fertility in Older Women
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
GQ on April 02, 2019:
Research these days shows that it is not true that we're born with all the eggs we'll ever have.
Angela Robinson on September 22, 2018:
Very interesting. I understand how DHEA can improve quality, but can you explain how it can improve quantity, given that we supposedly are born with all the eggs we will ever have?