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Fertility 101: using nutrition and lifestyle to support egg quality

Fertility 101: using nutrition and lifestyle to support egg quality

Many women are worried that they are getting older and have been repeatedly told that there is nothing that can done to improve egg quality. In this article registered Nutritional Therapist, fertility specialist and IVF mum to two girls, Victoria Smith of Victoria Smith Nutrition looks at how the picture is not so clear cut and how using the right nutrition and lifestyle changes can support your egg quality, no matter what your age.

What is egg quality?

Egg quality describes the potential of an egg to become a viable pregnancy after fertilisation. There are many factors to this, but probably the most important factor is having the correct number of copies of each chromosome. As women we have been told repeatedly that fertility takes a nose-dive after 35 and well, after 40, it falls off a cliff. This can be a time of fear, stress and anxiety for many of us.

Female babies are born with all their eggs and, during the time from development to ovulation, eggs have many opportunities to accumulate damage as part of the natural ageing process. However, it’s not quite so simple as thinking that as every year goes past, our eggs just get older and there is nothing that can be done to change or improve egg quality. Each egg exists in a suspended state from development until about 3-4 months before ovulation when a small number of immature eggs begin maturing. Most of these eggs will not survive this process and eventually only one dominant egg will be selected for ovulation. 

One study from 2012 suggested that age is only one factor of many that may result in incorrect maturity before ovulation; there are other factors including internal and external environmental conditions that may act at many different stages of egg maturation to influence the likelihood of mistakes. This should give you hope that by changing some of these internal and external conditions in the months before ovulation, you really can increase the likelihood of an egg maturing correctly, thus improving your egg quality.

What can you do to support egg quality?

Preparation is key! Remember the egg takes about 3 months to mature. Be realistic that changes aren’t going to happen overnight and the ideal amount of time to prepare is 3-4 (or even better, 6) months. You wouldn’t just run a marathon without doing the training and, preparing for conception, which ever route you go down is exactly the same. It is crucial to note that your aim should not be just about getting pregnant, but rather being able to maintain a healthy pregnancy and have a healthy baby, as well as smooth postnatal recovery. 

What does an egg-nourishing diet look like?

So, you might all be thinking that you know how to eat, but I am here to tell you that the well-balanced diet is a myth. Results of the official government 2018 Health Survey for England showed that only 28% of adults are achieving the 5 a day fruit and vegetable target. In a nutshell, by far the best diet for fertility for both women and men is the Mediterranean diet, which is one full of nutrient dense foods and great at reducing inflammation: 

  • Aim for at least 5 vegetables and fruit a day (ideally more!) and focus on colour, variety and abundance 
  • Include a big portion of dark green leafy vegetables every day
  • Plenty of fish (oily fish 2 times a week, but avoid tinned tuna)
  • Add in vegetable proteins, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas a few times a week
  • Stay away from trans-fats and refined carbs found in processed foods as these can be inflammatory 
  • Include a moderate amount of whole grains, such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, millet and buckwheat
  • Reduce your red meat intake and it should always be grass fed and organic
  • Include lots of healthy fats for hormone building, such as avocados, oily fish, nuts and seeds and olive oil
  • Add fresh spices and herbs for antioxidants and flavour

How can you change your lifestyle to improve egg quality?

Lifestyle also plays an important part in influencing our egg quality. One study showed that couples with more than 4 ‘negative lifestyle variables’ took 7 times longer to get pregnant than those without the same variables (these included smoking, alcohol in the male partner, BMI, caffeine etc.) With this in mind, here are my top tips:

  • Make sure your BMI is within the normal ideal range (20-25), as obesity (BMI over 30) negatively affects fertility. If you have weight to lose, then the key is to do it gradually as fatty tissue has toxins that get released into the circulation when crash dieting.
  • Significantly reduce or even avoid alcohol as it can be very inflammatory for the body. However, the odd glass of good quality, organic red wine once or twice a month is probably ok. Please note it is probably best to abstain in the second half of your cycle or during IVF treatment.
  • Reduce and limit, rather than avoid caffeine but go organic and use the best quality you can find. The odd small cup every so often is probably fine. Be careful with decaf options as, although perceived as ‘healthy’, these can be full of chemicals (always look for Swiss Water Process decaf), consider green tea as an option and swap your regular coffee for a dandelion coffee latte (I promise you get use to them!)
  • Absolutely no smoking for both partners 
  • Avoid toxins by reducing your plastic use and swap your personal care and cleaning products to more natural ranges, eat as much organic food as you can and always drink filtered water.
  • Reduce your stress as it massively impacts fertility. It is not just external emotional stress that we need to consider, but also internal physiological stress, such as infections, nutrient depletions, inflammation and lack of sleep. 
  • Stop over-exercising as more is definitely not better when it comes to fertility! Avoid spin classes, HIIT classes and marathon running. Think more gentle activities such as yoga, swimming, walking, Pilates and tai chi instead.
  • Explore if your diet is lacking in any essential fertility nutrients. Our levels of zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, choline, CoQ10 and essential fatty acids are crucial for good fertility and egg quality. We can easily become depleted in these depending on our current diet, lifestyle, any medical conditions and medical history.

Where can I get help in bringing this altogether?

If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by all this and are wondering where you can get help on your fertility journey, then consider working with a Nutritional Therapist (NT). For a fraction of the price of fertility treatment, an NT specialising in fertility will review all aspects of your fertility journey including diet, lifestyle and current supplements, as well as exploring any possible root causes of fertility issues. Look for an NT who is a member of the British Association of Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and is registered with the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) to ensure they are fully qualified and highly knowledgeable. But as last thought remember egg quality is only half of the overall picture and don’t forget that sperm quality plays an equally important role.

Find out more information about Victoria Smith Nutrition here.

[1] Fett R (2019) It starts with the egg. 2nd edition, New York, Franklin Fox Publishing

[2] Fett R (2019) It starts with the egg. 2nd edition, New York, Franklin Fox Publishing 

[3] Nagaoka et al (2012) Human aneuploidy: mechanisms and new insights onto an age-old problem. Nat Rev Genet; 13(7): 493-504

[4] Health Survey for England (HSE) (2018) Fruit & vegetables. Accessed 20th February 2020

 http://healthsurvey.hscic.gov.uk/data-visualisation/data-visualisation/explore-the-trends/fruit-vegetables.aspx

[5] Hassan et al (2004) Negative lifestyle is associated with a significant reduction in fecundity. Fert Steril, 81(2): 384-92

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