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A Cure for the Aging Ovary

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a blog by Robyn Nazar, RN, BSN, July 13, 2011

To read more of Robyn Nazar's The Fertile World: A Nurse's Perspective blogs, CLICK HERE.

At some point our ovaries will let us down — it's an inevitable part of aging. Whether due to natural causes as we approach our 40s or premature ovarian failure, eventually our ovaries will no longer be able to mature eggs, ovulate and perform all of the necessary tasks needed to create a baby.

But what if this ovarian aging process could be reversed?

Fertility researchers have been working for quite some time to find a way to help reverse the effects of aging on the ovaries. Many treatments have come and gone, but one appears to be emerging as a real potential candidate for the future of aging ovaries: DHEA.

What is DHEA?

DHEA is an abbreviation for dehydroepiandrosterone, which is a natural steroid hormone produced primarily by the adrenal gland located on top of the kidneys, as well as in the reproductive organs and brain. When DHEA is released into your bloodstream, your body uses it to make testosterone and estrogens.

As one of the most abundant natural circulating hormones in your body, DHEA has a wide range of health effects. It has been studied for its effect on the reproductive system, mental function, mood, longevity, autoimmune disease, muscle growth, cancer, cardiovascular health and more. However, most recently it has drawn attention due to its beneficial effects on fertility.

DHEA and Your Ovaries

DHEA is believed to play a very unique role in preserving the number of healthy eggs a woman has in her ovaries. Research shows that DHEA may work in three different ways:

  1. Maintains healthy levels of insulin-like growth factor, which prevent ovarian aging
  2. Maintains normal levels of androgen hormones that control ovarian function
  3. Improves the chromosome quality of eggs, which increases the likelihood of a viable pregnancy.

Around the age of 35 the body begins to slow down the amount of DHEA that it makes. Stress, genetics and other lifestyle factors can also play a role in declining DHEA production, resulting in a diminished quantity of high-quality eggs available and making natural conception very difficult.

DHEA Treatment for Fertility

A growing number of fertility clinics have begun to use synthetic DHEA supplements as a part of their treatment program for women who show signs of aging ovaries, such as diminished ovarian reserve, repeat miscarriages and ovarian failure. According to a 2010 study published by Tel Aviv University, women who were given DHEA supplements were thee times more likely to become pregnant than those who were not. Furthermore, ongoing research at the Center for Human Reproduction in New York has published results finding that DHEA:

  • Improves spontaneous pregnancy rates
  • Decreased the amount of time that it takes a woman to become pregnant
  • Increases the amount of eggs retrieved in IVF treatments
  • Improves the genetic quality of eggs and embryos
  • Decreases the incidence of miscarriage

Is DHEA Safe?

Despite the growing interest in DHEA treatment, there is still much unknown about the long-term use of DHEA for infertile women. There are very few well-designed studies that examine safety of the hormone, as well as its effectiveness on improving ovarian function.

DHEA supplements are available over-the-counter in the United States and, like other supplement products, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, the quality of DHEA products that are available at the local vitamin stores cannot be guaranteed for effectiveness or safety.

Furthermore, professional organizations such as the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) have yet to take a stance on DHEA use, so no formal guidelines for use have been established. This means that fertility clinics and physicians are left to experiment with protocols of their own — a risky venture for those inexperienced with DHEA use.

However, to date there have been no serious side effects reported with DHEA use, and the positive results from these early studies are prompting many clinics to begin using DHEA for women with aging ovaries. In fact, a recent survey estimated that approximately 25 percent of fertility clinics worldwide are now using DHEA supplementation.

Consult with Your Doctor Before Using DHEA

Experts advise that women not try to treat themselves with DHEA supplements without the careful guidance of a qualified fertility doctor. Excess amounts of DHEA could potentially cause an imbalance of hormones and, without proper regulation and assessment, may have an adverse affect on fertility.

According to the government clinical trials website there are several studies of DHEA for infertility that are currently recruiting participants:

  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) Treatment and Premature Ovarian Failure
  • Study of Oral Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) to Treat Previously Unexplained Infertility
  • The Use of DHEA in Women With Premature Ovarian Failure
  • The Effect of DHEA on Markers of Ovarian Reserve in Women With Diminished Ovarian Reserve

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