Supplements, Part I: DHEA

As I mentioned in my last post, our game plan is to proceed with the “soft science” in an effort to improve my egg quality before trying IVF again. Dr. Y (and I) refer to this as soft science because there is so little evidence that it works. But, since there isn’t any “hard science” to suggest how I might improve my egg quality, the soft stuff is all I have available to me! And the specific weapons in my soft science arsenal include acupuncture and dietary supplements.

Here are the supplements I’m taking (in my fancy new pill organizer – it’s a bit unnatural how fond I am of it…see, you push down the little colored tab, and the compartment pops open with a satisfying ‘click’…)

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By name, here’s what I’m taking:

  • aspirin (81 mg, 1X per day)
  • coenzyme Q10 (400 mg, 3X per day)
  • DHEA, micronized (25 mg, 3X per day)
  • fish oil (1000 mg, 1X per day)
  • L-arginine (1000 mg, 1X per day)
  • melatonin (3 mg, at bedtime)
  • myo-inositol (2 gm, 2X per day)
  • prenatal vitamin (2X per day)
  • pycnogenol (30 mg, 3X per day)
  • vitamin C (500 mg, in the morning)
  • vitamin E (200 IU, 1X per day)

As you can see, it’s a long list, so I’ll break it down into a few posts. Today I’ll start with DHEA, perhaps the most widely-prescribed supplement for DOR-sufferers like me (albeit with scanty scientific evidence to support it…) Here’s what I think I know about DHEA, but first:

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 diagnosis and treatment!

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DHEA is short for dehydroepiandrosterone, a “male” steroid sex hormone (or androgen) that serves as a precursor to testosterone (and estradiol for that matter). I wrote previously about the theory behind using androgens to treat female infertility. In brief, DHEA produced in the adrenal glands and ovaries gets converted to testosterone in the ovarian theca cells. This testosterone travels to the ovarian granulosa cells, where it is converted to estradiol. In addition to making estradiol, the granulosa cells surround the egg and are responsible for producing additional hormones to stimulate egg growth. Androgen levels (including DHEA and testosterone) tend to decline with age, and some researchers think that diminished ovarian reserve is a condition characterized by low androgen levels. In theory, adding extra DHEA through supplementation will stimulate the granulosa cells, leading to an increase in follicle growth and responsiveness.

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In the US, DHEA is easily available over the counter, and a large number of DOR women are currently taking DHEA with the hopes of improving their ovarian responsiveness. However, the verdict is still out on whether this works at all. From what I can tell, DHEA’s biggest proponents are Drs. Norbert Gleicher and David Barad of the Center for Human Reproduction. Here’s a summary of their research articles and a snazzy video. At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Geoffrey Sher of the Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine is convinced that DHEA supplementation for DOR patients is a bad idea, a stance which he articulates in his popular blog.

To try and get to the bottom of the DHEA debate, I once again enlisted the help of PubMed, a database of citations from the biomedical literature.

First, I searched for “diminished ovarian reserve DHEA”. This search yielded 20 hits, of which 13 concluded that DHEA improves pregnancy rates in DOR patients, and 7 articles concluded there is not enough evidence to indicate a beneficial effect of DHEA supplementation.

At a first glance, this would seem to strongly support using DHEA – 13:7 in favor of DHEA, and the 7 detractors are saying there is no effect, not that there was an adverse effect of DHEA supplementation. But on closer inspection, I noticed that 11 of the 13 pro-DHEA articles came out of a single research team. Many of these articles were case studies. None were the sort of double-blind placebo-controlled studies that satisfy me as a scientist. (Although, in their defense, I found hardly any infertility studies that would qualify as double-blind placebo-controlled studies…Reproductive endocrinology in practice just doesn’t seem to be very evidence-based…)

So, who is this prolific, pro-DHEA research team? They are none other than Norbert Gleicher and David Barad of the Center for Human Reproduction. Now, the fact that they publish a lot about DHEA is certainly not a reason in itself to be suspicious of their conclusions. However, I did find the following disclosure (included in the text of one of their articles) worth considering:

“N.G. and D.H.B. are listed as co-inventors on two, already granted US user patents, which claim therapeutic benefits from DHEA supplementation in women with DFOR and DOR: both authors are also listed on additional pending patents in regard to DHEA supplementation and on pending patents.”

So they clearly have a financial interest in the efficacy of DHEA. I also think it’s worth mentioning that the SART stats for the clinic Dr. Gleicher heads (listed as American Infertility of New York PC on the SART database), are underwhelming…even when I sort the data to view only the stats for couples diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve. Of course, stats aren’t everything; there are a number of reasons why their clinic might have lower stats (for example, if they take the cases that everybody else won’t, etc.) Still, I’m inclined to take their research conclusions with a grain of salt.

Here are some selected quotes from articles about DHEA:

from articles in favor of DHEA supplementation for poor responders from articles showing no benefit to DHEA supplementation
  • “several studies have suggested an improvement in pregnancy rates…While the role of DHEA is intriguing, evidence-based recommendations are lacking…large randomized prospective trials are sorely needed. Until (and if) such trials are conducted, DHEA may be of benefit in suitable, well informed, and consented women with diminished ovarian reserve.”
  • “DHEA supplementation is an effective option for patients with DOR.”
  • “Although more data on the dehydroepiandrosterone effect on assisted reproduction are needed, results obtained over the last few years confirm the improvement of oocyte production and pregnancy rates. No significant side effects are reported, and those include mainly hirsutism and acne.”
  • “DHEA does not appear to exert influence via recruitment of pre-antral or very small antral follicles (no change in AMH and inhibin B) but rather by rescue from atresia of small antral follicles (increased AFC).”
  • “The improvement of reproductive parameters after DHEA supplementation in poor responders may be explained through the effect that this pro-hormone exerts on follicular microenvironment.”
  • “Dehydroepiandrosterone supplementation can have a beneficial effect on ovarian reserves for poor-responder patients on IVF treatment.”
  • “no significant difference in the clinical pregnancy rate and miscarriage rates…insufficient data to support a beneficial role of DHEA”
  • “low DHEA levels do not suggest that supplementation with DHEA would improve response or pregnancy rate.”
  • “Although androgens may be biologically plausible, current evidence is not sufficient to prove their effectiveness…patients should be counseled regarding the experimental nature of such a treatment.”
  • “We believe that large-scale, well-designed confirmatory studies are necessary to prove the efficacy of DHEA before it can be recommended for routine use.”
  • “Based on the limited available evidence, transdermal testosterone pretreatment seems to increase clinical pregnancy and live birth rates in poor responders undergoing ovarian stimulation for IVF. There is insufficient data to support a beneficial role of rLH, hCG, DHEA or letrozole administration in the probability of pregnancy in poor responders undergoing ovarian stimulation for IVF.”
  • “There is currently insufficient evidence from the few randomized controlled trials to support the use of androgen supplementation or modulation to improve live birth outcome in poor responders undergoing IVF/ICSI treatment.”

What did I conclude from all this?

  • Dr. Y was right not to prescribe DHEA off the bat. Now I’m not a physician, but if I were, the amount of evidence out there about DHEA and DOR is insufficient for me to justify encouraging patients to pump themselves full of expensive performance-enhancing steroids. (Yes, DHEA is on the WADA List of Prohibited Substances. I’ll write more on the overlap between this list and most IF treatments in a future post…)
  • Aside from acne and hair growth, DHEA probably won’t hurt me. Dr. Sher’s objections notwithstanding, I can’t find any evidence to show that DHEA supplementation (at a dose of 50-75 mg/day) is likely to be harmful. Even Dr. Sher’s blog didn’t give any particular reason why he thinks DHEA is harmful, or any published studies showing that it is. Publishing an opinion on a blog is just that – an opinion. I certainly don’t lend it the same level of credibility as an article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. (Unless it’s my opinion on my blog; in that case, you should take it as Gospel!)
  • I’m ready to try DHEA. While I think it was the right decision not to take DHEA prior to my first IVF cycle, now we have more information. From my failed cycle, we know that I’m a poor responder (even on the protocol specifically designed for poor responders), and that my egg quality is crap. The properly randomized and placebo-controlled “good science” has failed me, and all that’s left is this “soft science”.

I think it’s significant that several of the studies I found specifically suggested that physicians should only prescribe DHEA to “well-informed” and consenting women who fully appreciate its experimental nature. I think now I can safely say that I fall into that group…

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