A one-time controversial supplement, DHEA gained new status when a study found it could help older women make better eggs. Now new research shows it may cast an even wider net in helping women of all ages get pregnant. Here's what you need to know.
By Colette Bouchez
It was just a few years ago - 2005 to be exact - that a study published in the journal Fertility & Sterility found that supplements of a hormone known as DHEA (short for dehydroepianodrostone) could help older women undergoing IVF treatments make more and possibly better quality eggs.
Now new research out of Israel shows it may not just be older women who can benefit from this supplement - but all women trying to get pregnant. In research conducted at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel led by Adrian Shulman, MD, doctors discovered that women who took supplements of DHEA before undergoing IVf treatments had triple the rate of pregnancy success compared to women who did not take the supplements. Moreover, the DHEA supplements appeared to work as well on younger women as the earlier studies showed it worked on older women.
What Is DHEA - And How It Helps You Get Pregnant.
While the use of some supplements, particularly herbs, can date back hundreds, if not thousands of years, the use of DHEA supplements is relatively new. As a compound made by the body naturally, it is a precursor necessary for the production of steroid hormones -including some directly involved in reproduction. While it is normally present in the male body in large amounts - and is a precursor to manufacturing testosterone - in a womans' body it's usually present in much smaller amounts.
While no one is certain of the exact mechanism behind the DHEA success, researchers from the Center for Human Reproduction (CHR) in New York City who pioneered the use of this supplement believe it reduces the risk of chromosomal abnormalities in eggs - abnormalities that would otherwise lead to an inability of the egg to be fertilized, or result in a miscarriage. Experts say that occasionally these miscarriages happen so early on, a woman might not even know she is getting pregnant, instead believing that she is infertile.
Indeed, by helping the body to actually create "healthier" eggs, not only does the rate of fertilization go up, but the rate of miscarriage goes down - which could be great news for women who have lost one or more pregnancies.
In one study published recently in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, doctors found the rate of spontaneous miscarriage was exceptionally low in women who were using DHEA supplements.
According to published reports, Norbert Gleicher, MD, medical director of CHR and a lead author of a breakthrough study on DHEA says “This is the first direct evidence that DHEA beneficially affects egg and embryo quality by reducing chromosomal abnormalities.” He continues to say that ”It appears likely, however, that this is not the only way by which DHEA exerts its positive effects on older ovaries. Indeed, DHEA may only be a forerunner for a whole new family of infertility drugs, which, ultimately, still may allow older women to conceive through well-designed infertility treatments.”
David H. Barad, MD, MS, second lead authors and Clinical Director of CHR’s IVF Program, adds: “Our finding may have implications far beyond infertility because it suggests that beneficial effects of DHEA supplementation on embryos' chromosomal health could also be extended to normally fertile older women.” DHEA supplementation, like taking folic acid to prevent neural tube defects, could become routine in prenatal care.
Can DHEA Help You? To date, the number of studies conducted on DHEA is still relatively small, and involve a small number of women. Moreover, virtually all of these studies have involved women undergoing IVF treatments - which in and of itself allows for a very controlled conception environment.
And while so far this research has been favorable, what we don't know yet is if DHEA would have the same positive effect - or any effect - on women trying to get pregnant on their own. Remember, the women undergoing IVF are already identified as having fertility problems - which means the DHEA may be correcting a deficiency that led to their inability to conceive. Whether or not it would have the same or equal power in women who do not have this deficiency - or a different deficiency - is yet to be discovered.
So, should you take DHEA to help you get pregnant? Right now the best advice is to talk to your doctor. You might be a candidate for this treatment if you have already had one or more miscarriage, or if getting pregnant seems to be taking longer than it should.
If you do decide to give DHEA a try, make certain to purchase it from a reputable compounding pharmacy who makes the supplement from scratch. This will help insure potency. You also want to be sure to purchase "pharmaceutical grade" DHEA for the best results. The amount used in many of the studies was 25 mg three times a day - but again, talk to your doctor to decide on the right dosage for you.
While it's not likely that a DHEA supplement will harm you, it can have some nasty side effects including oily skin and hair and an increase in acne. On the plus side, however, many women report a dramatic upswing in their sex drive - so that might be worth a pimple or two!
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