Before we are born, our developing ovaries contain all of the eggs we will have during our lifetime. When we are still only a 20-week old fetus in our mother’s womb, our number of eggs peaks at approximately four to six million. After this time, a natural process known as ooctye attrition begins where the number of eggs decreases. By the time we are born, we have about one million eggs left. At the time of our first period, we still have a few hundred thousand eggs. And when we reach menopause, approximately one thousand eggs remain.
At puberty, structures in our brain known as the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland begin to produce hormones which stimulate our ovaries to develop follicles, then ripen and release our eggs. This so-called initial recruitment of eggs and follicles is the beginning of our menstrual cycle. The regulation of these hormones throughout our reproductive years is referred to as the H-P-O axis.
So a question arises – if there are still approximately one thousand eggs remaining at menopause, why does our fertility decrease and the chance of miscarriage increase as we age?
There are a few theories of why this may be. One theory is that the DNA contained within our eggs becomes less stable with time, increasing the likelihood of a chromosomal abnormality which may be incompatible with life. Another theory is that the eggs of higher quality respond better to the reproductive hormones and are released first, leaving eggs which do not respond as well and are considered to be of lesser quality for recruitment at the end of our reproductive life.
But as Randine Lewis reminds us in her book, The Infertility Cure, a woman’s eggs do not have an expiration date. They respond to their surroundings just like the rest of our body’s systems do. Ovaries and eggs respond negatively to poor diet, toxins, and stress; but they also respond positively to a healthy diet and pure lifestyle. Further, she states that it is not age which makes our eggs less responsive, but rather an unstable H-P-O axis.
This represents the Traditional Chinese Medicine view of fertility. The health and vitality of a woman’s eggs, and the stability of her H-P-O axis, are not fixed; they can be can be influenced by diet, exercise, lifestyle, acupuncture, and herbs. Although Chinese Medicine recognizes that reproductive potential (often referred to as Kidney Qi) does decrease after the age of 35, it also offers treatment options to help nourish and strengthen that Qi, as well as ensure the smooth circulation of blood and energy to help stabilize the H-P-O axis. Care is taken to rid the body of any toxins which may be negatively affecting health. By using a whole body approach, a woman who is in balance and nourished is considered to be more fertile. And this is true whether you are 21, or whether you are 44.