It started quite slowly. Almost like spots of rain, which one day suddenly became a full on shower before I'd even had a chance to pull my umbrella out: everyone started having babies. I'd open Instagram and see a baby. I'd sporadically check Facebook and see a pregnancy announcement. Over pub garden drinks, I'd be almost guaranteed to hear "Did you see that so-and-so did a gender reveal video? Can't deal."
Given that I'm not talking about any of my closest friends - the majority of whom, like me, are career-obsessed and in no rush to conceive, but rather old colleagues or school pals who I've since drifted from - the baby barrage didn't consciously impact me at first. 'Good for them', I'd think, before going back to browsing flights to wherever's on the green list, or haggling on Depop. But then, while seemingly doing nothing one afternoon, a tiny thunderbolt of panic struck me.
I am currently 28 years old, and my default response should anybody ever ask me about my future plans for children, is always the same: "Yeah, probably one day but I've got a lot to do first, so I plan on leaving it until the very last minute!"
But that little panic-bolt sparked a new thought – what if, without even realising, I left it too late? What if, my personal fertility levels, were declining quicker than the average person with ovaries and I ought to bring my 'aged 35 or thereabouts' plan forward a few years? How late even is 'too late' anyway?!
It's questions like this that new at-home fertility and hormone levels test, Grip, has set out to answer. Founded by three female entrepreneurs, the finger-prick blood test bills itself as a 'fertility MOT' that offers cisgender women the chance to learn more about their own bodies – and have a heads up should something not be working exactly as it ought to.
It was created by Anne Marie Droste (an investor), Dr Noor Teulings and Ling Lin (product manager), with the vision of identifying key risk factors that can make falling pregnant a challenge for women: ovulation issues (such as PCOS), thyroid problems, blocked fallopian tubes, whether or not you're likely to enter early menopause, and low ovarian reserve. The latter - thought to signify the number of eggs remaining in your ovaries - is the part most of interest to me personally. So, when Grip asked if I'd like to review the process, I said yes.
How does the Grip at-home fertility test work?
Initially, I'm asked to take an online test detailing my menstrual cycle and the type of birth control I'm on; those who use a hormonal method can only be tested for their AMH levels, at a cost of £99, which can give an indication as to your number of eggs etc. Those on a non-hormonal option, like me (shout out Team Copper IUD), can be tested for AMH, LH, testosterone and TSH, for £139. So hormone levels, thyroid issues, the whole shebang.
Co-founder Anne Marie tells me similar tests in her native Netherlands are typically only offered to women after they've been unsuccessfully trying to conceive for a year. The situation here in the UK isn't dissimilar (according to NICE guidelines, women who’ve "not conceived after one year of unprotected vaginal sexual intercourse... should be offered further clinical assessment and investigation"), and Grip's whole ethos is about empowering people to get to 'grips' with their own body sooner rather than later. In order to have more time to make important life decisions.
Shortly after completing the form, a test kit arrives in the post and I'm messaged by a Grip advisor on WhatsApp, who offers to ping me a handy reminder to take said test of the third day of my period.
When that day rolls around, I follow the instructions to the tee, prick my finger with the enclosed lancet and... spend almost forty minutes trying to get enough blood out, in order to fill the tiny test tube to the required capacity (0.5ml, or around 8 drops of blood). I try clapping, 'milking' my finger, star jumping, running my hand under warm water, everything that's recommended to get the blood flowing, but alas, I still fall short.
My Grip advisor says this can sometimes happen (so hurrah, I'm not a clumpy-blooded freak who's about to drop dead any minute) and that in those instances, Grip can set you up for a blood test with a professional, but to send my sample back on the off-chance the lab deems it fit enough to run the necessary tests. I pop it in the post box (with a free returns label on) and wait.
The results of my fertility test
Luckily, mine turns out to be a big enough sample to run the appropriate lab tests. Less than a week later, my Grip consultant pings me another WhatsApp and sets me up a session with a doctor.
I hadn't actually felt nervous about my results until on the call with Dr Silvia, but when she appeared on-screen, I have to admit to a flutter of nerves. On that note, should your results throw something up that leaves you stressed, worried or upset, your Grip doctor will pull together a free plan, including writing to your own GP should you want them to. "Most hormonal imbalances or risks associated with fertility can be managed," the website also reassures.
During the session, Dr Silvia carefully walks me through each element of the test, explaining what the lab is looking for and why, and what is a 'typical' result and what isn't, before telling me my own. She was reassuring and patient throughout, and I left with all of my questions answered.
Thankfully, all of my results came back showing that my egg count is where it should be for my age (slightly higher than average, in fact) and my hormone levels weren't a surprise - however, this doesn't necessarily mean my eggs are high quality, or that in future if/when the time does come, I'll be able to fall pregnant instantaneously.
The test also doesn't tell you if you're fertile generally, but as I've been pregnant once in the past - it resulted in an abortion, which was a difficult experience - I guess one small silver lining from that was knowing that in theory I should be able to conceive again in future when the time is right.
Is an at-home fertility test reliable?
Home tests across the board have been steadily growing in popularity for a few year now, from DNA-family-tree un-earthers, to health-focussed kits that claim to be able to predict everything from your likelihood of having certain diseases in future, or what allergies you may have.
Naturally, doctors and experts across the board have also expressed concerns: health is nuanced, you'll always get the best care and most accurate plan of action by going through your own GP. By speaking to somebody in person. One TrustPilot review of Grip also sees one customer give a one star rating and claiming that they had the same tests done in a hospital on the same day, with the results differing to those provided by Grip.
Acknowledging the hesitancy and controversy around such tests, Anne Marie says, "We’ve had some gynaecologists who were worried that telling someone they have for instance a normal amount of eggs creates a false sense of security, and makes people delay having kids." Adding that she understands the desire to 'protect', at the same time Anne Marie is firmly in the camp that it's poor form to keep so-called 'vulnerable women away from medical data'.
"Our customers aren’t vulnerable at all," she stresses, recounting her own story of paying £600 for private fertility predicting tests. They revealed that she's more at risk than the average woman of entering early menopause, and lead to her freezing her eggs - and starting Grip.
"We’re a generation where some women make more money than their male peers, and reproductive equality is one of our last hurdles. It seems crazy to me that I’d make 'worse' decisions about my future, based on 'more' information," she continues. "If anything, I feel a bit underestimated: I’m expected to run the world, but when it’s about my ovaries I suddenly become irrational and not able to process nuances?"
When I queried about the labs Grip work with, Anne Marie also said, "All our labs are ISO 15189 certified [an accreditation awarded to labs that are proficient and offer a quality service] and both them and our doctors have CQC (Care Quality Commission) qualifications. With your report we give you a letter for your NHS GP, to explain what we tested, and they can reach out to us if they need any clarifications on the lab results." I also searched for Dr Silvia on the GMC Register and her qualifications checked out.
So, is it a good idea to try an at-home fertility test? For me, the experience was interesting and didn't throw up any challenging news, but for others it could - and I think if I were to hear something bad about my health, I'd want to have it broken to me in-person by a doctor who could also create a follow-up plan for me sharpish.
If I'm being honest, it was nice to be told reassuring things, but results can change - in five years I could do another batch of tests and be told my 'above average' egg reserves have plummeted and I'm up shit's creek. I'm taking it with a pinch of salt and my rough 'plan' for motherhood remains the same: I'll know when I'm ready - that time is not now - and I've got a lot more life to live before having to become responsible for another living, breathing, screaming, (expensive) mini human.
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