Phytoestrogen Supplements & IVF
Infertile women may improve their chances of becoming pregnant by supplementing with soy phytoestrogens when undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF), reports a study in Fertility and Sterility (2004;82:1509–13). Phytoestrogens are compounds found in certain plants that have hormone-like activity in the body. Isoflavones derived from soybeans are one kind of phytoestrogen.
Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of trying. The condition affects more than six million American couples and has a variety of causes. In 40% of cases, factors specific to the male partner may cause or contribute to infertility. Abnormal sperm function or production, low sperm count, certain infections, and malnutrition can all lead to infertility in men. In women, blockage of the fallopian tubes, endometriosis (a condition where tissue that normally lines the uterus grows in other areas, potentially affecting the reproductive organs), ovulation disorders, hormonal imbalances, and uterine fibroids (abnormal growth of tissue in or around the uterus) are possible causes.
IVF may be used to treat some types of infertility. In a typical menstrual cycle, only one egg is released. Women who undergo IVF receive injections of drugs that suppress part of the hormonal system and cause the ovaries to produce several eggs. After the eggs reach a certain size, they are retrieved from the woman’s ovaries using a fine needle. The eggs are then fertilized with sperm from the male, and reintroduced into the woman when the embryo has reached an early stage of development. In the process of stimulating the ovaries to produce many eggs, the drugs used in IVF procedures cause the levels of certain hormones (including progesterone and a form of estrogen called estradiol) to decrease. Progesterone is necessary to ensure proper implantation of the embryo in the uterus, so progesterone injections are routinely given to women undergoing IVF. The role of estradiol in achieving and maintaining pregnancy is more controversial; however, there is an association between higher estradiol levels and higher pregnancy rates.
The new study investigated the effect of phytoestrogen supplementation on pregnancy rates in 213 women undergoing IVF for infertility. After the retrieval of the eggs, the women were assigned to receive either 50 mg of progesterone plus 1,500 mg of isoflavones derived from soy per day, or 50 mg of progesterone per day plus placebo until either a blood test for pregnancy was negative or an embryonic heartbeat was seen on ultrasound. The women were assessed for rates of embryo implantation, biochemical pregnancy (based on levels of hormones in the blood), clinical pregnancy (based on seeing an embryo with a heartbeat on ultrasound), miscarriage, and ongoing pregnancy and delivery.
The women receiving phytoestrogens had significantly higher rates of embryo implantation, clinical pregnancy, and ongoing pregnancy and delivery than the women receiving placebo. Among the women supplementing with phytoestrogens, 30% gave birth, versus 16% of the women in the placebo group. There were no adverse effects noted by any of the women taking the phytoestrogen supplement.
The results of this study suggest that phytoestrogen supplementation is a promising adjunctive treatment for women undergoing IVF for infertility. Further studies are needed to determine exactly how phytoestrogens exert their effect on the reproductive system.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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