One of the most common questions I will hear from patients is - Are my eggs too old for me to conceive? We know that our eggs, like all the cells in our body, will age with time so yes age is certainly a factor when it comes to the quality of your eggs. Age however is not the only determining factor when it comes to egg health. Optimizing your own health before trying to conceive, can help improve the quality of your eggs and the overall health of your future baby. The development of your eggs from their primordial state to when they are ready to ovulate takes about three months. The three months before getting pregnant we call the preconception period and is a particularly critical time to focus on your health.
When we are considering the health of our eggs there are two main areas of focus that we need to optimize.
- Mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of our cells. They are found within your cells and are responsible for creating energy. Mitochondria are found in high amounts in our eggs, as the development process requires a significant amount of energy. Once the egg meets the sperm all the mitochondria for the developing embryo come from your egg. If your mitochondria aren’t producing enough energy, it can be difficult for DNA to replicate and therefore to have a healthy pregnancy. As we age there is a natural decline in mitochondria energy production that is one of the contributors to diminishing egg quality.
- Antioxidant potential. Our bodies are constantly exposed to a host of different toxins, free radicals and oxidants that can cause damage to the cells in our body – including our eggs. Our liver produces a few different antioxidants, one called glutathione and one called CoQ10, that can help combat these oxidants and protect our cells. As we age, we also see a decrease in our ability to deal with oxidative damage which is another contributor to diminishing egg quality.
By understanding the importance of these systems, we can start to look at ways to help protect and nourish our eggs while they are developing. There is a fluid called follicular fluid that surrounds our eggs as they develop. This is where we have the ability to change the environment that the eggs develop in.
Eating a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables will help provide a variety of antioxidants that can help with oxidative damage. Minimizing the amount of processed and refined foods will also help to decrease the amounts of oxidants that are created in the body. There are several other ways to help decrease the exposures that I will cover in other articles. There are also several supplements that have been shown in the research to help support egg quality. All the research that is done specifically looking at egg quality is done in IVF settings. This is the only opportunity we have to actually visually see the egg and assess quality.
CoQ10 is a nutrient that works to support each of these areas. CoQ10 works as an antioxidant to prevent damage to cells. It also enters mitochondria to help with energy production. Research with CoQ10 has demonstrated both improved egg quality and embryo production for women undergoing IVF or ICSI procedures. There is also research showing that women under 35 with reduced ovarian reserve or poor ovarian response, showed significant improvements following CoQ10 dosing over an eight week period. Women in the trial who received CoQ10 had higher fertilization rates, greater high-quality embryos, and less cancelled embryos transfer than women in the control group who didn’t receive CoQ10.
Acetyl-l-carnitine is an amino acid that supports mitochondria by acting as a shuttle to move fatty acids into mitochondria. This allows mitochondria to make energy more efficiently. Supplementation with acetyl-l-carnitine can reverse age-related decline in mitochondrial function. Research done using acetyl-l-carnitine in embryo cultures showed reduced DNA damage and improved chromosomal structure. This means that the embryos had a higher chance of being genetically viable to grow into a healthy baby. Acetyl-l-carnitine works in synergy with CoQ10 as it helps CoQ10 get into the mitochondria. If there isn’t enough carnitine in the system, CoQ10 can’t work as effectively.
N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is an amino acid that also helps to support egg quality by increasing antioxidant capacity. NAC is a building block for your body to make a powerful antioxidant called glutathione. Glutathione is one of the best antioxidants our livers make which can then help support the health of developing eggs.
Other antioxidants such as alpha lipoic acid, melatonin vitamin C and vitamin E all have research helping to reduce the negative effects of oxidative damage to cells including developing eggs.
Working on improving your antioxidant capacity and mitochondrial function can have a significant positive impact on the healthy development of your eggs as well as improve the health of all your cells! There are many lifestyle and diet choices as well as supplementation that can help support your journey to becoming a mother to a healthy baby. For further support please speak with your fertility specialist or Naturopathic doctor.
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By Dr. Jodie Peacock ND
Image courtesy of KATSUHIKO HAYASHI, KYUSHU UNIVERSITY, JAPAN