As we slowly move beyond the summer solstice, it’s impossible not to think about how the days are now getting shorter. Though the shift is nearly imperceptible, we know all too well that with each passing day, there is less and less summer left (despite that the season technically just started).
This transition is hugely reminiscent of women’s fertility after age thirty-five. The literature, doctors and even our own families ensure that we are ever hyperaware of the detrimental effects advanced maternal age (35+) has on our fertility. Both the quantity and quality of our eggs is imperceptibly dropping as certainly as the days are getting shorter.
The research and many doctors will tell you that egg quality is the single most important factor in achieving a successful pregnancy past thirty-five. Quantity obviously also plays a role, but if the eggs themselves are not fully healthy, pregnancy remains an impossibility.
This leads us to the question – is there anything we can do about our egg quality (short of time traveling back in time and freezing our eggs in our twenties)?
The answer is a resounding yes. A critical part of declining fertility rates in modern times has to do with the drastic change in our diets over the past 100 years. The current western diet averages an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of 25:1 when historically (prior to the last 100 years), this ratio sat somewhere much closer to 1:1. That means we are taking in a whole lot more Omega-6 than ever before with no corresponding increase in Omega-3, and it’s not helping our fertility.
Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid so our body needs it in moderation from healthy sources. The problem isn’t that we are suddenly overeating healthy foods like walnuts, tofu and peanut butter. The recent uptick in Omega-6 consumption has come largely from an increase in the consumption of corn, soybean and other vegetable oils high in Omega-6, mostly ingested via processed foods.
In order to effectively improve the quality of our eggs, we need to substantially increase our Omega-3 intake while ideally reducing our dependence on processed foods high in Omega-6. Consuming Omega-3s (DHA and EPA) have been shown to be beneficial in the most critical areas of early reproduction. They have improved fecundity (the time it takes to get pregnant), encouraged oocyte maturation (preparing the egg to leave the follicle) and aided in embryo implantation. All vital steps on the way to a healthy pregnancy.
In addition, Omega 3s actually elicit improvements in the actual quality of the egg in terms of chromosomal and mitochondrial health. As is often highlighted, chromosomal defects are the most common cause of lost pregnancies, of which women over 35 are more at risk. So knowing that there is something you can add to your diet or take as a supplement is empowering knowledge.
Part of how Omega-3s achieve this feat is by reducing inflammation in the body. They actually inhibit the genes that trigger the inflammatory process. Inflammation is a normal defense mechanism in the body, but when the body is constantly in this state, it can cause a range of damage.
Now that we know how important it is to increase Omega-3 consumption and to maintain a tighter ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3, we are now faced with the question where to get these nutrients. It’s fairly common knowledge that fish is a top source of Omega-3 fatty acids, hence things like fish oil supplements, but not all fish are created equal.
In fact, many fish fall into a category of simply “not being worth it.” Essentially, not all fish have considerable levels of Omega-3, and some of these fish also have high mercury levels (also counterproductive to your fertility efforts), so it’s best to ensure that you’re consuming fish that have a high dose of Omega-3s without a corresponding high level of mercury. The best sources of Omega-3 in fish are found in cold-water fatty fish. These include salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines. You can also find Omega 3s in grass-fed beef (not regular beef, which will be higher in Omega-6), bison, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, (Walnuts were mentioned earlier as having Omega-6 – keep eating them, they have both!) spinach and Brussels sprouts.
So the bottom line is that you are not solely at the mercy of your biological clock when it comes to improving the quality of your eggs. There are dietary changes that you can make to improve your chances of a successful pregnancy, and it’s never too late to start implementing these changes. If you start adding more Omega-3 to your diet immediately after reading this post, your eggs will start to show improvement in just three months (that’s the length of time it takes for an egg to mature and be selected for ovulation).
The days may be getting shorter, and we may be getting older, but that doesn’t mean we don’t play a role in our own fertility. We can choose to savor these transient summer days by filling our days with tasks that matter, and we can nourish our eggs by choosing Omega-3-rich foods to indulge in. So why not cook up a delicious salmon dinner and watch the sunset at 8:30pm while it lasts.
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Lass, Amir et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and IVF treatment. Reproductive BioMedicine Online, Volume 38, Issue 1, 95 – 99
Nehra D, Le HD, Fallon EM, et al. Prolonging the female reproductive lifespan and improving egg quality with dietary omega-3 fatty acids. Aging Cell. 2012;11(6):1046-1054. doi:10.1111/acel.12006