With regards to fertility and the female reproductive system, research often feels like three steps forward, two steps back.
We’ve made strides in medical science that can’t be ignored, but when we learn new information about our bodies – especially when it comes to fertility – it often feels like, shouldn’t we have known that already?
New information about our eggs and their storage space, our ovaries, might leave us feeling like this. Up until recently, women have been operating on the belief that we’re born with all the eggs we’ll ever have. When we’re developing in our mother’s womb, our egg production has already begun, and even when our mothers were mere embryos in their moms, we were already starting out as these specific and distinct cells. Unlike male fertility, through which sperm can be produced for many years well past middle age, we women are at somewhat of a disadvantage. Though we can improve our egg quality, there’s not much we can do in terms of quantity.
Or so we thought. New research potentially indicates that women might not actually be born with all the eggs we’ll ever have. So, what does this mean for our traditional approach to fertility?
Out with the Old…
Let’s quickly recap what the accepted scientific dogma on eggs is. A woman will be born with all the eggs she’ll ever have in her lifetime, and the development of eggs occurs as female babies progress through gestation in the womb. When she’s born, a baby girl will already have millions of eggs in her ovaries. Once she reaches puberty and begins menstruation, eggs will be released during every cycle – if the egg is fertilized by sperm, then an embryo will implant in the uterus and begin developing. If the released egg remains unfertilized, then the woman has a period and the cycle begins again. It’s estimated that during a menstrual cycle, we lose around 1,000 immature eggs.
Up until recently, women have been operating on the belief that we’re born with all the eggs we’ll ever have.
As we age, so do our eggs. Though we can’t do much about the number we lose, we can implement certain lifestyle choices to boost the quality of our eggs. Egg quality plays a paramount role in our fertility, especially in our ability to both get pregnant and maintain a healthy pregnancy. Just as sperm quality is influenced by factors like exercise, diet, obesity, and smoking, our egg quality can be influenced by those factors in addition to our age. It’s generally acknowledged that as we age, our egg quality and quantity decrease, which is why our fertility remains optimal in our younger years.
Sperm remain resilient; eggs don’t. While conversations on female fertility shouldn’t necessarily be dictated by comparing apples and oranges, it’s helpful to know both what we’re potentially affected by and how those same factors look when it comes to male fertility, especially if we have the goal of pregnancy in mind.
…In with the New
The new research that has been introduced has, in truth, rocked the scientific community because it proposed a concept that contradicts nearly everything we know about egg quantity. The research in question proposes the existence of possible ovarian stem cells, which indicate that even though eggs won’t remain healthy long into our old age, that doesn’t necessarily mean we stop producing them when our fertility declines.
A reproductive biologist at the University of Edinburgh, Evelyn Telfer, is leading the charge when it comes to ovarian stem cells. Telfer has studied ovaries and reproductive science for the past 40 years, and largely believes that “cultural biases about women” are preventing skeptics from being open to the possibility of new discoveries in women’s health.
New research proposes the existence of possible ovarian stem cells, which could potentially make new eggs.
Male fertility is often described as “prolific” when compared to egg production. Men are fertile long into old age, while our ovaries essentially shrivel up and wither away as menopause takes ahold of us. Telfer believes that her research contradicts this dogma, seeing as how women continue to produce hormones even after menopause. On the basis of her research, it isn’t that we stop producing eggs past our proverbial sell-by date, but that the mechanisms which “nourish the eggs and pump out hormones to the rest of the body may be too damaged to continue.”
Another researcher who has been key in the field of ovarian stem cell research and regeneration, Jonathan Tilly, asserts, “There's no fathomable reason why a woman would have evolved to carry stale eggs around for decades...while men have evolved to have fresh sperm always available.”
What This Means for Fertility
While this research has effectively segregated reproductive biologists and scientists into two distinct camps (those supporting the existence of ovarian stem cells and those who disagree with the research), there’s another group who will potentially be affected by this concept as studies continue to move forward – women.
It’s true that women in particular are seen as ticking time bombs with regard to their fertility. And we’ve always believed this was because, after a certain age, we don’t have the same options we did 10 or 15 years earlier. Will this research lead to discoveries that enable women to have babies at older ages?
This research has effectively segregated reproductive biologists and scientists into two distinct camps.
But we shouldn’t be too keen to put all our eggs in one basket, as it were. This research, which is still in its infancy, is decried and protested by prestigious experts in the field. Not only that, but as with any development in female fertility, there are tons of ethical factors and biological concerns to consider. Whether there’s a future in this field or not, fertility isn’t something that we should only think about once we’re of childbearing age, and it never has been. We may see our ability to get pregnant as just another luck of the draw, and we might even be resentful of those who’ve gotten pregnant “easily” or of men for having the apparent luxury to take their sweet time. None of that is conducive to expanding our knowledge of the female body and fertility, though.
There’s so much to be learned and valued about ourselves outside of whether or not there’s a future in ovarian stem cells, though it does have the capability to change the traditional way we think of our eggs and ovaries. News like this should be just a piece of the puzzle for us as fertility-minded, body-literate women, not the whole picture.
It’s frustrating being told you only have a few years left to have kids, or to be reminded that men have certain capabilities that we don’t, or to really want to be pregnant but have no idea where to start. That’s why it’s so important that we’re not only educating ourselves as soon as possible, but that we’re sharing experiences and information with the women around us as well.
Whether or not this kind of science changes the entire future of women’s reproduction forever, there’s so much to be gained by learning all we possibly can about our bodies, what our fertility looks like, and what it means to us.
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