Slowing the Reproductive Clock: Fertile hope for women 35+

by Lorne Brown, BSc, CA, Dr.TCM, FABORM
Source: Health Action, Summer 2012

There's been a lot in the news ­lately about how female fertility ­declines dramatically after ­women turn 35.  Of course age matters, and if you're in your 20s or early 30s and wondering if now's the time to expand your family, don't wait.

But what if you're one of the millions of women in your late 30s or 40s who discovered love late or only now decided to add to your family? If you're trying to conceive, then hearing physicians and the media say things like "advanced maternal age," "low ovarian reserve," "high FSH," and "poor IVF responder" is sure to strike fear into your heart.

Until now western reproductive medicine has insisted that a woman is born with a fixed number of eggs and that the sharp decline in the quality and quantity of eggs after age 35 is irreversible. However, new studies challenge the absoluteness of this view. A recent study from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on coenzyme-Q10 (Co-Q10) and egg quality suggests that, in fact, it may be possible to improve egg quality and slow down or even reverse the aging process.

In the study, scientists found that by injecting old, retired breeder mice with the antioxidant Co-Q10, they were able to stimulate more eggs to develop, and the genetic quality of these eggs--their youthfulness--resembled those of mice eggs in their reproductive prime. The offspring of these older mice, who were the equivalent of a 50-year human, were as healthy as those from younger mothers. It appeared that the Co-Q10 was actually able to rejuvenate the mitochondria (the cell's power source) and repair damage to the DNA.

Another study, published by Dr. Jon Tilley in Nature Medicine, shows that stem cells found in human ovaries are capable of generating new eggs--suggesting that under the right conditions, women can keep producing new eggs indefinitely.

Thus, it appears that the state of women's eggs may be less predetermined than previously thought. And this gives hope that there are things that you can do to preserve and improve your fertility.

Chronological versus biological age
Our chronological age is fixed, ­derived from how many birthdays we have, but our biological age can be accelerated or slowed down depending on lifestyle and environmental factors.

Studies of the Okinawans of Japan, who have the longest life expectancy as well as the longest health expectancy of any people in the world, show that diet, exercise, stress and lifestyle can have a very significant impact on your health and longevity. 

And it appears that accelerated ­aging in human eggs may also be affected by external factors as well. For example, it has been shown that women who smoke go into menopause on average two years earlier than women who don't.

A study published in Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology on biological versus chronological ovarian age shows that both environmental and genetic factors contribute to egg quantity and quality and that biological age is more important than chronological age in predicting the outcome of in vitro fertilization.

Accelerated aging
Our current lifestyle in the West, characterized by chronic stress, lack of sleep, a high-fat, fast-food diet and overconsumption of stimulants, accelerates the aging process. 

These factors leave us prone to diseases such as cancer and diabetes and hasten the ticking of the reproductive clock:
  • Processed food diet
  • Elevated stress/cortisol levels
  • High inflammation levels
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor sleep
  • Social isolation and lack of support network
  • Environmental toxins
Reach your fertility potential
1. Eat a whole food diet
Whole foods are foods that are in the state that Mother Nature made them (the apple instead of apple juice), minimally processed and refined as little as possible before being eaten.

Slow carbs: Eating carbs in their natural unprocessed state causes a slower and lower rise in blood sugar. Slow carbs include beans, peas, lentils, whole grains, vegetables and most fruits. Eating slow carbs helps to minimize insulin resistance, regulate blood sugar, balance hormones and prevent gestational diabetes.

Plant-based foods: These include a rainbow of high-fibre fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. These foods are loaded with ­antioxidants and phytonutrients that fight inflammation (a common cause of ­infertility) and nourish your reproductive ­system.

Healthy fats: Eat fats that are pressed naturally from whole-plant foods (coconuts, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives) or are short-lived, deep sea fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel. Healthy fats combat cellular inflammation and improve hormonal sensitivity.

2. Maintain a healthy weight
Strive for a body mass index (BMI) of between 20 and 25 and a waist circumference of less than 35 inches (89 cm) for women and less than 40 inches (102 cm) for men. Losing just 10 pounds (4.5 kg), if you are overweight, can greatly enhance your chances of pregnancy.

3. Exercise regularly
Exercise burns calories and helps regulate your insulin levels, reversing some of the metabolic imbalances that ­contribute to weight gain and fertility problems. 

And when you exercise, your body rewards you by releasing a cascade of feel-good hormones (endorphins). These endorphins are Mother Nature's anti-­depressants, lowering your stress and boosting your sense of well-being.

You can get the positive effects of ­exercise by vigorous walking or running 30 to 40 minutes every day. Amplify the effects of your workout by ­incorporating more activity into your daily routine: park your car a few blocks from your destination, take stairs instead of an elevator, hike, bike, swim or join a dance class.

4. Manage stress
Chronic stress shuts down all non-essential systems and directly affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovary axis (HPO) that regulates fertility hormones. As well, stress diverts the blood supply away from the ovaries and interferes with your body's ability to respond to even balanced hormones.

Self-care, meditating and mind-body programs can help reduce distress and promote deep relaxation.

Connecting to what's important to you and expressing gratitude all help to counter stress and promote well-­being. This allows your body to relax and naturally rebalance your reproductive ­hormones.

5. Nurture your social network
Humans are social beings, and studies have shown that having a supportive community of family and friends is the most important determinant of mental and physical health.  This is particularly important for women who are distressed. Studies have described a "tend and befriend" response to stress in women where women seem to deal with stressful situations by bonding and nurturing each other.

6. Consider natural approaches
Fertility acupuncture: Studies show that acupuncture can improve blood flow to the reproductive organs, balance hormones, optimize implantation and reduce miscarriage rate. Frequency of acupuncture (such as three times per week) ­appears to improve effectiveness.

Custom Chinese herbal formulas: Chinese herbal therapy corrects underlying deficiencies, balances hormones and regulates the menstrual cycle.

Fertility/ anti-aging supplements:
  • Prenatal multivitamin/mineral
  • Folic acid 1 mg/day
  • Co-Q10 100 mg/day
  • Greens: wheat grass 2 shots/day, or spirulina 3000 mg/day
  • Omega-3 2000 mg/day
  • Vitamin D 1000 IU/day
  • Iron-free multivitamin/mineral
  • Antioxidants
  • Omega-3 2000 mg/day
  • Vitamin D 1000 IU/day
  • Zinc 30 mg/day (a handful of pumpkin seeds)
  • Co-Q10 60 mg/day
  • Selenium 250 mcg/day (2-3 Brazil nuts)
A final few words on the marvels of medical technology: we are fortunate to live in an age where reproductive technology exists. Even with proper diet, exercise and rest, some couples will require the use of donor sperm, donor eggs and in vitro fertilization. But by living in a way that promotes peak fertility―at any age--you will optimize egg quality, as well as ­improve the uterine environment for implantation and gestation of a healthy baby.

If you are 35-plus and want a child, you can make changes to your lifestyle that slow down the aging process and help you restore your fertility potential.
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