No follicle left behind

Last weekend, C & I went out with some local infertility survivor friends. (They conceived their daughter on their second IVF attempt). I was so excited to see them and ask for their advice and provider recommendations. They’ve been understandably busy with their little bundle of joy, and we hadn’t seen them since deciding to undergo IVF.

Early in our dinner, I was reminded of how different this journey is for each of us, when I started explaining my protocol to this friend and she interrupted me to offer some well-meaning advice,

“You just need to forget about all those stats and research and just believe that this is going to work!”

Um. Yeah.

C suppressed a laugh, and I quickly explained that, in fact, the only way I was going to make it through this was to read and research everything I could, because I like learning about stuff (especially stuff that, you know, matters this much…), because it gives me something I can do, and because by doing it I can regain some feeling of control.

To her credit, she quickly relented, “I forget. You’re such a scientist!” Yes, yes I am.

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So, after asking for your book suggestions and reading your comments (Thank you SO MUCH for those by the way!), I got inspired to make the leap from nonfiction books on infertility (which were too general to answer specific questions about my IVF protocol or my diminished ovarian reserve) to the primary medical literature. It’s a far cry from my area of expertise, but I’m doing my best to find answers to some of my most pressing questions… But before I continue with what I think I know, let me offer an important disclaimer:

I am NOT an endocrinologist, or any kind of medical professional! This blog does NOT purport to offer medical advice, medical opinions, or recommendations. Please take this for what it is – the ramblings of an infertile woman trying to make sense of her complicated treatment protocol!

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Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about Estrace! I’m currently on day 16 of Estrace supplements. I take two tabs (4 mg total) each evening (and thanks to you bloggy friends, I make sure to silently thank Dr. Y each time for instructing me to take them orally. No smurf sex for me, thank you!)

As I’ve mentioned several times by now, Estrace is just estradiol (E2) – the most potent of the female sex hormones. So, why take estradiol?

Here’s what I think I know about E2:

1) Estradiol serves a similar purpose to that of birth control pills in traditional IVF cycles. That is, it suppresses pituitary signaling to keep levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) low. The idea here is to shut down ‘business as usual’, so that Dr. Y can take control of my hormones with the stims when he is ready.

I was confused by this at first, since in a lot of the hormone signaling diagrams that I got from Dr. Google, estrogens (including estradiol) are shown stimulating the pathway leading to FSH and LH (a so-called positive feedback effect). But upon further study, I learned that moderate levels of estrogens inhibit production of FSH and LH (a negative feedback effect), while high levels of estrogens (such as occur when there are a couple of big lead follicles spitting out estradiol) stimulate FSH and LH production. Endocrinology is weird (and cool…and confusing, but mostly weird).

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Here’s some data I collected with a fertility monitor stick that corroborates this claim:

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To fully appreciate the significance of this blank stick, you might check out this post about how the CBFM works. In brief, the absence of an LH line (left) shows that no LH is being detected, while the faint E2 line (right) shows the presence of ‘moderate’ circulating E2 levels… (In case you’re wondering, the monitor read ‘high’ fertility due to the estradiol; it doesn’t realize that I’m in the middle of an IVF cycle and won’t be ovulating normally this month…)

But why not just use BCPs like everybody else?

Apparently, it is thought that in some people,  the classic ‘long Lupron’ protocol with BCPs might lead to less responsive ovaries, suppressed ovarian function, and/or decreased egg yields. From what I can tell, this may be a particular concern for members of the DOR club (like me), who need all the ovarian function we can muster…

2) Estradiol helps make lots of EWCM. I can vouch for this side effect of the Estrace pills. However, this is irrelevant to my cycle, since we’re doing IVF. No sperm needs to travel through my cervix this month (via my sperm-friendly EWCM).

3) Estradiol helps to prep the uterine lining for implantation. (Progesterone plays a major role in this, but apparently E2 can help out.) This is also irrelevant for me right now, since we’ll be freezing any embryos and doing a frozen embryo transfer in August. (I’m interested to see if Estrace is part of my protocol for getting ready for the embryo transfer, though. If so, I’ll assume this is the reason.)

4) The most interesting – and from what I can tell, least certain – effect of estradiol is that it in theory (C does a great impression of Dr. Y gesturing with both hands as he tilts his head to the side and says “in theory,…”)

Anyway, in theory, estradiol promotes the gradual, coordinated growth of follicles, which hopefully will yield more, high quality embryos. We don’t want one or two show-off follicles running ahead of the pack. It’s sort of a “No follicle left behind” situation.

Here’s hoping it works!

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