Is it Possible to Improve Egg Quality?
In my practice, about 80% of the women I see for fertility are over 35 and about half of those are over the age of 40. One of the questions I get asked over and over is about improving egg quality. Is it actually possible?
We have all seen the statistics that our fertility rates and egg quality start declining as we age. But why is this so? Is 35 this magic number when our body just goes downhill and we need to switch our thoughts to retirement and social security? No way! You are probably reading this because you know that fertility doesn’t have to do with just that number on your driver’s license, and you are right.
I am here to tell you that there is so much more to the fertility story than just your age. Age matters to the extent that it is more time we have been exposed to the negative effects of stress, environmental toxins, poor dietary and lifestyle habits. Our bodies are still fully capable of getting pregnant after age 35 and 40, we just need to strategize a little more.
I am here to tell you there are things fully within your power which can help optimize your egg quality. And in this article, I’ll show you how to begin doing it. The exciting part about this is that you can essentially slow the aging process down and reverse some of these negative effects - essentially turning back the fertility clock.
Aging and our Eggs
First, let’s take a closer look at how aging can affect our eggs. Aging’s effect on our egg quality falls into a couple categories: that the energy in our cellular reserves is depleted and/or that it has affected the quality.
One of the biggest effects aging has is the cumulative damage of free radicals on both the eggs and the sperm over time. A free radical is a molecule or atom which has an unpaired electron, and this makes it unstable. You can think of free radicals as super bouncy balls inside your body, causing damage where ever they hit. The eggs and the sperm are especially sensitive to DNA damage from these free radicals.
So, if someone is smoking, eating a high sugar or standard American diet (SAD), or is in a state of constant stress, etc., then more of these free radicals will be moving around and causing damage to the body. Some of the things that cause free radical damage in our body are preventable - like eating an unhealthy diet or smoking. But some others are things we can’t quite control - like environmental pollution or depleted nutrient soil quality.
It is also a matter of the cumulative effect of these destructive bouncy balls on our body over our lifetime. This is one of the main ways age affects our eggs and sperm. So, it is not necessarily the number of our age - like 37 or 42, etc. - that suddenly creates this issue with egg quality, but this cumulative damage to our body and eggs from these free radicals.
Understanding this cumulative free radical damage is the first part in looking at how age affects our egg quality and where we can make a positive change by changing some of our lifestyle habits and even adding targeted herbs or supplements to slow down and reverse damage from free radicals. (I will be doing another blog in the future which will just focus just on various herbs and supplements to slow the fertility clock down).
The second part is utilizing the brief window of opportunity when your eggs are essentially in a state of suspension. It’s during this important time when you can make a positive difference in your egg quality and greatly improve your odds of conceiving.
Throughout our lives, our eggs are in a state of suspended animation as immature cells. In the roughly 3-4 months before an egg becomes a dominant follicle and ovulated, major growth and transformation happens to it. It is taken out of this suspended state and into this critical growth phase where we can both positively and negatively affect the quality by affecting the medium in which it grows, our bodies. This is a time when these eggs are especially sensitive to our stress levels, toxic exposure, our diet, and general lifestyle.
In other words, even if you’ve previously been burning the candle at both ends, sleeping 5 hours a night, and eating crappy takeout for every meal - you kinda get a small pass. And because you can positively benefit your egg quality moving forward by addressing many of the different diet and lifestyle factors necessary to make your body super healthy, you can make sure the egg grows in the most beneficial environment possible over those 3-4 months.
And now that ya know it isn’t all about the chronological number that is your age, let’s talk about some things you can do to slow the free radical damage and make use of that window of opportunity to improve your egg quality and fertility.
Improving Egg Quality
Ditch the Caffeine
I know it’s painful to think about not waking up with that cup of coffee! And, add to that, some of the big headlines we see right now are touting the health benefits of coffee consumption. Organic coffee can have health benefits for some groups of people, but just not for ladies trying to conceive.
To date, there have been several high-quality studies showing the negative effect of caffeine on women trying to conceive. Most of these studies have looked at women drinking coffee, as that is the major caffeine source for women in the U.S. and Europe. We still don’t understand the exact physiological mechanism of why coffee has such a negative impact. Is it because coffee is one of the most chemically treated crops in the world? This could be a factor. According to the CS Monitor, a non-profit news organization, up to 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers are sprayed per acre over nonorganic coffee.
There also seems to be a dose dependent effect of coffee’s impact on conception. According several studies, the amount of coffee a woman drinks is inversely associated with her ability to conceive. In 1992, Yale University did study of 1,900 women found a 55% higher risk of not conceiving for women drinking 1 cup of coffee per day. For those drinking 1½-3 cups of coffee, the risk was 100% higher, and 176% higher for 3+ cups a day. Also, a 1998 study in the Lancet found a very similar conclusion on fertility outcomes. They divided their data into 5 dose levels and found a dose-response negative effect on pregnancy rates.
So, to play it safe and maximize your fertility, avoid all caffeine sources while trying to conceive.
Reducing stress can have a hugely positive impact on a women’s hormones and fertility. On the other hand, not addressing stress levels can also have a negative impact on conceiving. When you are under stress for a long time, certain stress hormones are released (adrenaline and cortisol) which can direct blood flow away from uterus and ovaries, compromising overall functioning and the optimal health of your eggs.
Additionally, stress can disrupt what’s called the HPO (hypothalamus-pituitary-ovarian) axis. This triad is the main communication pathway between the brain and the ovaries and its balance is an important part of optimal fertility. The hypothalamus and pituitary are glands located at the base of the brain which are responsible for directing and producing both sex hormones and stress hormones. If prolonged stress is taxing these brain centers, disruption of hormonal balance can also occur. Also, excess cortisol (a stress hormone) has been shown to reduce production of key hormones (FSH, LH) necessary for the release of an egg and implantation. For more on the stress-cortisol-fertility connection and how to naturally balance it, see my blog here.
The reproductive system is the only system in the body that basically just shuts down when under prolonged stress. In terms of how our body views the reproductive system when under stress, it is essentially an expendable system. Crazy, right?
In a 2014 study in the Journal of Human Reproduction, it was found that women who had high levels of two biomarkers for stress (cortisol & alpha-amylase) in their saliva took 29 percent longer to become pregnant. Additionally, those with high levels of these biomarkers were twice as likely to not become pregnant after 12 months of unprotected sex.
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help bring stress levels down.
Meditation is one of my favorite ways to mediate stress levels. I see a huge difference in people who regularly meditate for even just 2 minutes a day. Everyone can carve out 2 minutes in a day, right?
There are many paid and free phone apps which make meditation a piece of cake. I love both Headspace and Calm Apps. Happify is another app which combines games and meditations to get you to a calmer state of mind.
Get Enough High-Quality Sleep
For healthy hormones and fertility, the goal is to sleep between 7-8.5 hours daily. Sleep not only helps to repair damaged cells, but it also can affect hormones and fertility either positively or negatively.
Some fertility hormones affected by sleep include progesterone, estrogen, LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone). Reduced or poor-quality sleep can impede healthy ovulation and disrupt the menstrual cycle.
Our hormones work in a natural rhythm throughout the whole month and throughout the day. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is a great example of this natural daily hormonal rhythm and has predictable times of highs and lows within a given day.
Cortisol levels should be at their lowest around midnight, and when they are elevated at this time, they interfere with REM sleep, which in turn impairs mental and physical regeneration and produces fatigue.
What can keep cortisol elevated at midnight? Going to bed too late, too much stimulation (like working on the computer) late at night, or the inability to fall asleep are a few reasons.
If your cortisol levels remain high at night, your body doesn’t get that chance to replenish, and that is vital to fertility. The net effect of this is an acceleration of the biological aging process, and this includes the aging of your egg follicles.
If you missed my blog on ways to get better sleep to improve your hormones and fertility, you can access it here.
Reduce Your Body’s Toxic and Inflammatory Load
So, what does this exactly mean? Reducing your body’s inflammatory load is treating your body in the healthiest way possible – with nourishing food, deep sleep, positive thoughts, movement, supportive supplements, etc. And, it also means to take the steps to get rid of the food and behaviors which can contribute to premature aging of our body and our egg follicles.
For example, we all know the feeling in our bodies when we are not taking care of ourselves properly. We may not be eating a healthy diet, we might be drinking too much alcohol, burning the candle at both ends, working too many hours, not exercising, getting crappy sleep, etc. You get the gist, we’ve all been there before.
Our bodies can start to feel lethargic, maybe our mood dips, or our digestion gets off kilter, or we feel puffy all over. When we don’t listen to our body and keep pushing it in these various ways, inflammation takes over and our cellular health and detoxification pathways do not function optimally. This causes us to not feel so great. But more importantly for fertility, this resulting increased inflammatory load on our body can have a very detrimental effect on hormones and the health of the uterus, ovaries and eggs.
There are many areas to look at where toxins may be impeding our health and fertility. Starting with the food we eat, the best way to nourish fertility and reduce inflammatory load is to eat a mostly whole-foods, organic (whenever possible) diet.
Eating lots of organic fruits and vegetables and less processed foods (processed foods are mainly those things that comes directly from a box or package) can also help to decrease inflammation in the body.
To help you know which fruits and veggies have the most and least toxic residues on them, check out the Environmental Working Group’s website below. These lists are known by their catchy names, the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen and can be found here. Using these lists can be helpful when shopping to know which fruits or vegetables are important to get organic and are okay to buy conventionally. They even have a handy app for this.
To jumpstart fertility, I also frequently recommend a quick whole foods elimination diet lasting between 1-3 weeks, either with or without a liver detoxification supplement powder. This is a wonderful way to break those sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and unhealthy food cravings which could be leading to more inflammation in the body and to unclog our detoxification pathways.
Another thing which could be contributing to your body’s toxin burden is your plastic containers. Using plastic containers can release xenoestrogens, a group of powerful hormone disruptors, and are best to be avoided. They are especially harmful when combined with a heat source (like microwaving, storing hot foods in, or leaving a plastic bottle out in the sun), which cause these xenoestrogens to leach out of the plastic and wreak havoc on your hormones and fertility.
There are many more places to look at when wanting to reduce your toxic load, from looking at aluminum in your antiperspirant/deodorant to the household cleaning supplies you may use on a daily basis. For more tips in living as toxin free a life as possible, one of our favorite blogs on this topic is https://ireadlabelsforyou.com/. .
Last but not least, if you smoke, ditch the cigarettes. Studies going back to 1985 have shown the harmful effects of smoking in fertility for both and women. Women smokers are at least 1.5 times more likely than non-smokers to take over a year to become pregnant. For males, heavy smokers produce 20% less sperm and DNA in the sperm can also be damaged by smoke. Delayed conception is also seen in both men and women smokers.
Get Basic Blood Tests Done
If you are trying to conceive, there are a few simple initial blood tests to ask your health care practitioner to order. If they refuse to run these tests, you can even order them on your own with many direct-to-consumer lab ordering sites available nowadays. These tests are not specific fertility tests per se, but their results can tell us if your fertility might be affected by a value being out of optimal range.
Once you have your results, take them to a holistic or functional medicine practitioner to interpret. Holistic medicine works with tighter lab ranges than what you traditionally see on the lab sheet – this tighter ranger tells us when a measure is sub-optimal and flags a potential issue before it has gotten to a point of pathology. That way, it is much easier to fix with a diet, lifestyle, or nutrient fix.
See below for some initial blood tests I recommend you ask for. There may be some additional tests needed on an individual basis, but these are the basics to get started. And even though they are the basics, they can give us a lot of information about if a person’s body is running optimally or sub-optimally.
Initial Basic Labs:
Complete Blood Count with a differential
Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
Thyroid Panel (I always also like to see thyroid antibody tests with this panel)
I have worked with thousands of women trying to conceive, about 75% of which have been over age 35. From this experience, I have seen that when we focus on the balancing the body and regaining optimal health, the body responds. Hormones begin to balance, fertility markers improve, and the path is paved for pregnancy to happen.
Are you a woman trying to get pregnant and looking for natural ways to increase your fertility? Book a FREE Phone Consultation with Dr. Terzo here. We’d love to help you get started!
Pollard, I., Murray, J.F., Hiller, R., Scaramuzzi, R.J. and Wilson, C.A. 1999. Effects of preconceptual caffeine exposure on pregnancy and progeny viability. The Journal of Maternal-Fetal Medicine. 8(5):220-4.
Yale University School of Medicine, Epidemiological Reviews Vol. 14, pg. 83, 1992
Wilcox, A., Weinberg, C. and Baird, D. 1998. Caffeinated beverages and decreased fertility. Lancet. 2(8626-8627):1453-6.
Jensen, T.K., Henriksen, T.B., Hjollund, N.H., Scheike, T., Kolstad, H., Giwercman, A., Ernst, E., Bonde, J.P., Skakkebaek, N.E. and Olsen, J. 1998. Caffeine intake and fecundability: a follow-up study among 430 Danish couples planning their first pregnancy. Reproductive Toxicology. 12(3):289-9.
See reviews of relevant studies in both of these journal articles - Journal of Advanced Research, Volume 1, Issue 3, July 2010, Pages 179–186; Human Reproduction vol.13 no.6 pp.1532–1539, 1998