As any woman in their 30s or early 40s who wants to have a baby will know, your fertility and your egg quality gradually starts to decline after about the age of 35. While you may have the best of intentions to conceive well before this happens, a busy life often gets in the way, and things don’t always go to plan.
So what happens when you find yourself in your late 30s or early 40s, wanting to conceive? Is it too late? Have you run out of eggs? And if not, are your eggs too old?
For Natural Fertility specialists, the question isn’t, ‘Is it too late for you to conceive?’ but rather, ‘What can we do to support you to improve the quality of your eggs?’ Our goal is to support women and couples by providing information and supplements to keep your eggs healthy.
Theories that egg quality is the major issue in age-related fertility decline is backed up by recent data showing that egg donation significantly improves fertility rates. Research also shows that your uterus can adequately sustain pregnancies even when your reproductive potential is artificially prolonged into your late 40s. (Navot)
The ‘quality’ of an egg refers to:
If an egg is of poor quality, it may either:
Science has given us some insights into why and how egg quality decreases as you age. If you stick with me for a few seconds, I’ll give you a quick biology recap that will explain everything!
Our bodies are all made up of tiny little cells. Muscle cells, nerve cells, skin cells, brain cells, kidney cells … you get the picture. All the cells in your body contain mitochondria.
Mitochondria are your cells ‘source of power – their ‘batteries’. They provide your cells with the energy they need to function. Mitochondria provide your body with energy by converting the food you eat into a form of energy (known as ATP) that your cells can use.
Your egg cells (also known as oocytes) have far more mitochondria in them than any other cells in the body. Oocytes contain 10-100 times more mitochondria than high-energy requirement cells like muscles and nerves. (Bentov) This is because, after a sperm fertilizes your egg, a significant amount of energy is required for the cells to divide and to support the critical events that are required to form an embryo. (Chappel)
And the more energy, the better; in fact, studies have clearly shown there is a positive correlation between ATP levels in newly-formed embryos, and successful embryo development. (Chappel)
Recent research indicates that the decline in mitochondrial function in the egg cell may be responsible for this age-related decline in egg quality. (Bentov)
Thankfully, we have tools in our belt to be able to support your mitochondria to improve their functioning and therefore improve your egg quality. Remember how I said that mitochondria convert the food you eat into ATP? During this process it largely relies on Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a very important piece of the puzzle.
There is an age-related decline in CoQ10 (it is also blocked by cholesterol-lowering medication) and researchers have worked out that CoQ10 supplements can restore energy production in your cells. Studies on animals show that mice of advanced maternal age who are treated with CoQ10 have a significant increase in ovulated eggs after stimulation, as well as a significantly increased litter size. (Bentov) CoQ10 supplementation also decreases chromosomal abnormalities in embryos and increases pregnancy rate. (Hannam)
If you’ve done any research on egg quality, you’ll have probably heard about CoQ10 supplements (also known as ubiquinone or ubiquinol) and you might even take it – so now you know why.
There are three important factors to consider when taking CoQ10 and other nutrients to improve fertility. 1. Can it help our case and condition(s). 2. Is it a high quality supplement? 3. Is it an appropriate/therapeutic dose? There is little point in taking the wrong supplement, a poor-quality supplement or the wrong dose; you will just be wasting your money.
Have a chat to your Naturopath, to ask about practitioner-grade supplements and the dose that is right for you and your individual situation.
There are a range of other nutrients that may also improve your egg quality, so please speak to your Natural Fertility specialist about what specific nutrients will be most beneficial for you.
Another Piece to the Puzzle: Oxidation
Oxidative stress (OS) is another piece of the egg quality puzzle. OS is the name for the damage caused to your cells when there are not enough antioxidants in your body to mop up excess free radicals. Scientists have found that OS can damage the egg cells in developing follicles.
Free radicals form naturally as part of the mitochondrial energy production process we spoke of before. Free radicals also come from external sources, such as drinking alcohol and coffee, smoking cigarettes, and exposure to environmental pollutants (Ruder) (air pollution, chemicals in cleaning products and personal care products, radiation from electronic devices, solar radiation from the sun, and so on). (Agarwal)
Antioxidants are nutrients such as Vitamin C & E, selenium and zinc (and CoQ10) and can be found in fruit, vegetables and wholefoods. Research into melatonin (another antioxidant) has found that it mops up OS damage and therefore improves egg quality and increases fertilization rates. (Tamura)
Research suggests that eating a varied diet (supplemented with multivitamins), limiting your consumption of caffeine and alcohol, and maintaining a healthy body weight may help improve your fertility. (Ruder)
REDUCE YOUR EXPOSURE TO FREE RADICALS
INCREASE YOUR INTAKE OF ANTIOXIDANTS
USE YOUR ENERGY WISELY
What are your thoughts about these strategies to improve egg quality? What has been your experience? We’d love to hear from you.
Navot, D. et al. Poor oocyte quality rather than implantation failure as a cause of age-related decline in female fertility. The Lancet. Vol. 337, Issue 8754, 8 June 1991, Pages 1375-137
Bentov, Y. et al. The aging oocyte – can mitochondrial function be improved? Fertility and Sterility. Vol. 99, No. 1, January 2013
Chappel, S. The Role of Mitochondria from Mature Oocyte to Viable Blastocyst. Obstetrics and Gynecology. International Volume 2013
Hannam, T. et al. Coenzyme Q10 Supplementation and Oocyte Aneuploidy in Women Undergoing IVF–ICSI Treatment. Clin Med Insights Reprod Health. 2014; 8: 31–36.
Ruder, E. et al. Impact of oxidative stress on female fertility. Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Jun; 21(3): 219–222.
Agarwal, A. et al. Role of oxidative stress in female reproduction. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology 2005 3:28
Tamura, H. et al. Oxidative stress impairs oocyte quality and melatonin protects oocytes from free radical damage and improves fertilization rate. Journal of Pineal Research. Volume 44, Issue 3, pages 280–287, April 2008
Kathryn is a qualified Naturopath, Fertility Educator and Birth Attendant with over 12 years experience treating reproductive health issues, general health and infertility. She is passionate about providing IVF support, pregnancy and preconception care. After specialising in fertility at Fertile Ground Health Group, Kathryn currently consults from Melbourne, Australia.