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Summary

OBJECTIVE The aims of the study were to describe the changes in serum immunoreactive inhibin (INH) during normal lactation and to examine the relations between INH, oestradiol (E2) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), particularly during the first weeks post partum.

DESIGN Blood samples were obtained from normally lactating women for hormone measurements at dally intervals until discharge from hospital, and subsequently at weekly intervals until the resumption of menses, or one year post partum.

SUBJECTS Eighteen breast feeding women aged 27–36 years volunteered for the study.

MEASUREMENTS INH, FSH, luteinizing hormone (LH), prolactin (PRL), E2, and progesterone (P4) were measured by standard radioimmunoassays. Non-linear modelling was used to quantify the hormone patterns observed.

RESULTS Hormone levels were compared with those found in the follicular phase of the normal menstrual cycle. Levels of INH fell rapidly in the first week post partum and remained at the lower end of the follicular phase range for the period of study, rising only just prior to resumption of menses. E2 fell more slowly, into the follicular phase range, reaching the lower end of that range only at about approximately 100 days post partum. FSH levels were suppressed initially below the follicular phase range, commencing to rise 4·7-24 days post partum, reaching a plateau high in the follicular phase range 17·5–53 days post partum, and subsequently showing a slow decline. Human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), initially measured because of its cross-reactivity in the LH assay, fell rapidly post partum and LH remained in the low follicular phase range for several weeks. PRL fell slowly throughout and was still elevated at 150 days post partum, while P4 fell very rapidly and was less than 1 nmol/l until just prior to first menses.

CONCLUSIONS inhibin levels fall rapidly post partum and remain low until close to the time of resumption of follicular activity and menses. The post partum rise in serum FSH appears to be much more closely related to falling oestradiol levels than to the very early and rapid fall in inhibin. Oestradiol thus appears to be the predominant negative feedback factor influencing FSH secretion during the post partum period. The low inhibin levels may allow FSH to rise to levels high in the follicular phase range under the predominant negative feedback control of oestradiol. Inhibin levels do not appear to be a suitable marker of returning fertility.