Oral Contraceptive Pill lowers ovarian reserve – A New Study

Written by Dr Lyndon Hale
03 Jul

The Pill is one of the most popular forms of contraception in Australia and is taken by an estimated 100 million women worldwide. Nonetheless, one question many women want to know is, will taking the pill impact my long-term fertility?

A Danish study reported at the world’s largest fertility conference, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Endocrinology 2014 Annual Meeting this week indicated the Oral Contraceptive Pill has a noticeable suppressive effect on key predictive markers used to assess “ovarian reserve” with outcomes significantly lower in Pill users compared to non-users.

Whilst the headline above suggests women on the pill have lowered ovarian reserve, it should be highlighted that this study reaffirms what we already know about the oral contraceptive pill in that women currently taking the pill will experience suppressed ovarian function, and that normal ovarian function should resume once the pill has been ceased and her future fertility should not be impacted.  It also highlights the importance of a thorough understanding of the issues for the doctor ordering the test.

How do you assess ovarian reserve?

Ovarian reserve refers to the number of viable eggs that are left in a woman’s ovaries. It is most accurately assessed by a blood test measuring the level of Anti-Mullerian Hormone, or AMH, a hormone secreted by cells in the developing egg sacs, in combination with an ultrasound, that counts the number of early antral follicles (AFC) in the ovary.

What were the study findings?

The study, which included 833 women (aged 19-46 years) from August 2011 – April 2014, compared measurements of AMH, AFC and ovarian volume in users and non-users of the Pill. It was noted that measurements of AMH and AFC were 19% and 16% lower in Pill users compared to those not taking the Pill.

What if I want to conceive?

The results of this study should not alarm women who have taken or are currently taking the contraceptive pill and hope to conceive either now or in the future. Evidence would suggest that the effects of the Pill on ovarian reserve are only temporary while the woman is actually taking the pill, and it does not change the ovaries in any permanent way. Once the pill is ceased, ovarian function is expected to resume, and a woman’s future fertility status should not be impacted.

What is the importance of this study?

This study highlights that the measurements of AMH and AFC in the assessment of reproductive status must be modified in those taking the pill, in light of the fact that women taking the pill will have lowered ovarian reserve due to the pill’s effect on suppressing ovarian function.

Women who are currently taking the pill should therefore consider delaying having their AMH levels tested until at least three months after they have ceased taking the pill to obtain an accurate indication of their fertility status.

Assessing Your Own Fertility 

If you are concerned about your fertility and have been trying to conceive for six months or more and are over the age of 36, you may wish to consider speaking with a Fertility Specialist.

Find a Fertility Specialist: New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria

Read more about Ovarian Reserve (AMH) Test: New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria


This data was presented by Dr Kathrine Birch Petersen from the Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark ‘on Wednesday 2 July 2014 at the ESHRE annual meeting in Munich. Abstract 0-203, Wednesday 2 July 10.15 CET – Ovarian reserve assessment in users of oral contraception seeking fertility advice on their reproductive time span.

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Related Articles

Conceiving in your 40s, what are the chances?

I was recently asked to comment in a Sun Herald article on 26th August (also published online here: Sydney Morning Herald) on Collette Dinnigan, who pregnant at the age of 46, has called on women not to leave it too long to try for a baby.

It is always news when a high profile personality such as Ms Dinnigan, has a child, particularly when the personality in question is a bit older.  The difficulty is that these occasions, while very happy for the people involved, give a misleading picture of the actual likelihood of conception in these circumstances.  Remember that high profile personalities such as Ms Dinnigan, are human beings who quite rightly value their privacy and so very rarely (quite understandably) talk to the press when things aren’t going so well.  It was therefore, a particularly courageous action of Ms Dinnigan, while celebrating her own happiness, to so publicly, point out the difficulties that may face other women, seeking the same fulfilment.

What then, are the issues for women in their forties who are planning to have a child?

The main difficulty is that conceiving is simply harder at that age and, even once a woman does conceive, the risk of miscarriage is higher.  Surprisingly, although we have very good data about the effects of age on IVF conception (more shortly), we don’t have very good statistics about the effects of age on conceiving naturally. The limited available data about natural conception comes from old population studies or studies of unique populations, such as the Hutterites of North America, who do not use contraception.  Interestingly these data, such as they are, seem to be entirely consistent with the more modern and abundant IVF data.  Generally, in one year of trying, 75% of women under 30 years and 66% of 35-year-old women but only 44% of 40-year-old women will achieve a live baby naturally.

The main explanation for this, is that women are born with a finite number of eggs, and from that moment onwards, the number of eggs is declining all the time, until women go through their menopause at around 50-51.  Nonetheless, women in their 40s do still ovulate each month.  What is it about their eggs that cause all these problems?

A common misunderstanding with some women is that the fact she looks and feels young, and leads a healthy lifestyle, means that her eggs will be healthier. I regularly see women who have taken enormous care with their fitness and their health.  The rest of their body is in great shape, completely fit and ready to carry that longed-for pregnancy.  Sadly, despite this, the eggs still can’t do it.  The effects of time are remorseless and, sadly, there is no wonder drug to fix it.

Scientists have shown that eggs from older women are more likely to have an abnormal makeup making pregnancy less likely, miscarriage more common and increasing the risk of Down Syndrome, a condition where a child is born with an extra chromosome number 21.

Nor is IVF a cure for this problem. For women, in their early 40s, IVF is still a good thing to try and gives significantly higher success rates than trying naturally.    However, IVF success rates fall sharply after the age of 40 and by the time a woman is 45 are close to zero.

So, what’s the good news?  Well despite all of the above, many women do conceive in their forties, either by IVF, or naturally, and have very happy healthy families.  It is obviously better to have your family earlier, if you can, but all hope is not lost, just because you’re past 40.  Conception and early miscarriage are the big problems but, if you do conceive and get past the first few weeks, by far the most likely outcome will be a healthy child.  While the risk of Down Syndrome is increased, most of the other problems that affect young children are not increased by being conceived a later maternal age.

Finally, many women worry that by having their children later, their long term health and emotional development may be affected.  On the contrary, we now know that the children of older mums grow up to be as healthy and bright as any other child.

Snapshot of Fertility in Australia

There have been a number of happy and high profile stories in the press recently about older celebrities giving birth to healthy children. Stories like this used to be extraordinary, but they certainly seem to be on the increase. While this trend is supported by data that shows the fertility rate and numbers of births are increasing for women over 30 and especially for women in their early 40s, women and couples should understand the risks associated with having children later in life.  IVF Australia, Melbourne IVF and Queensland Fertility Group, have teamed up to create their latest infographic - “Fertility and Age in Australia” which explores some of these issues.
 Fertility in Australia infographic

Paternity, Maternity, Equality

Conceiving a baby in a same sex relationship

IVFAustralia, and its partner clinics Melbourne IVF, Queensland Fertility Group and TasIVF, are proud supporters of ‘rainbow families’. IVFAustralia were an Official Supporter of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year, and we’ve seen the number of same sex couples accessing our donor program double in the last year.
 
In 2011, a survey of 3,835 LGBT people found 33% of women and 11% of men had children1 - but close to 40% reported wanting to have children or have more children. This so-called ‘gayby’ boom is thanks to changes in community attitudes and laws, including better access to Assisted Reproductive Treatments for lesbian and single women.
 
So, if you’re hoping to experience the joy of starting a family within a gay or lesbian relationship, what do you need to consider?

How long will it take to conceive?

Generally speaking, we’d expect a healthy woman with no fertility issues to fall pregnant through IVF or Artificial Insemination within six months. You can prepare for pregnancy by improving your diet, doing regular exercise and other lifestyle factors.
 
When you access the donor program there are a few extra decisions you need to make.
 
Do you choose a known donor, or an anonymous donor? In a lesbian relationship, do you want to implant an embryo with eggs from one mother into the other? Should you store some sperm from the same donor for later, in case you’d like a related sibling? For two dads, the process of finding a surrogate can also be complex.

How do we choose a donor?

Our fertility clinics offer access to both Australian and US* donor sperm. The access fee for US donor sperm is higher, but the waiting list is also shorter as there is a shortage of local donors (gay men, we’d love to hear from you!)
 
When you’re using donor sperm or eggs, there are a few legal, emotional and ethical factors to consider and a counsellor will help you work through these concerns so you can make the best decisions for your family’s future.

Are there any legal issues?

Each state has different laws about parental recognition and access, so it’s worth seeking specialist advice before you start.
 
For example, in Victoria, the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act (2008) removed discrimination against lesbian and single women with regard to fertility treatment, recognised parenting status for non-birth mothers and also effectively legalised ‘altruistic’ surrogacy. It also recognises lesbian couples as equal parents of their child or children as long as they were in a de facto relationship.

What else should we be prepared for?

30 years of research2 has shown that the children of same-sex parented families do just as well as the children of heterosexual parents socially, educationally, physically and emotionally.

The issues your children will face as they get older are just the same as the issues facing any children conceived using donor sperm or eggs: Where did I come from? Should I contact my donor? You need to be prepared for these questions at some point.
 
In the meantime, we hope we can help you fulfil your dream of having a baby, and that you will experience the joys of pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

What should be my next steps?

If you would like to learn more about the fertility treatments available for same-sex couples in your regions, visit one of our websites. 


 * IVFAustralia and Queensland Fertility Group patients only.

1 Leonard et al. (2012) Private Lives 2: The Second National Survey of the Health and Wellbeing of GLBT Australians, The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Melbourne
2Rainbow Families Council of Victoria (2010) Rainbow Families and the Law, RFC, Melbourne, http://www.rainbowfamilies.org 

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