Last year we spent over $350 billion on anti-aging products. That’s 350,000,000,000!
We are obsessed with the visual changes our bodies undergo as we get older, spending countless hours stressing about the appearance of a new wrinkle on our faces AND countless dollars trying to get rid of it! But while we scrutinize every detail of our outward appearance, few of us ever stop to think about the aging that is going on just below the surface.
A woman’s reproductive system ages faster than any other system in the human body
How quickly or slowly your reproductive system ages will impact your fertility and your ability to get pregnant later in life. For most of us, this is far more important than a silly wrinkle on our face so let’s put down the polypeptide cream and learn some anti-aging tricks for our ovaries instead!
Ovarian aging and your ovarian reserve
Ovarian tissue is more sensitive to aging than any other tissue in the human body (whaaat!) and as it gets older, both the number of follicles it houses and the quality of these follicles reduces.
How many viable follicles a woman has in her ovaries at any given time is referred to as her, “ovarian reserve” (OR). We are born with around 1-2 million follicles and as we age our OR gradually declines, eventually depleting entirely leading to menopause around the age of 50 (sometimes sooner or later depending on each woman’s unique circumstances and genetic makeup).
So, your reproductive age is directly linked to your ovarian reserve. The higher your OR, the younger your reproductive system is!
For some women though, the rate of follicular reduction happens more rapidly leading to poor ovarian reserve and sometimes premature ovarian failure (POF). This can happen for a variety of reasons – certain genetic mutations, exposure to radiation and most importantly health and lifestyle choices – but the resulting effects of these are the same; advanced ovarian aging.
Regardless of whether you have a healthy ovarian reserve or whether you are experiencing advanced ovarian aging, taking steps to help keep your ovaries young and healthy should be a top priority, not just for the preservation of your fertility but for your overall health. Remember, your menstrual health is like a window into your big health picture.
What affects ovarian aging?
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As I mentioned, we all start our lives with around 1-2 million follicles in our ovaries. By the time we reach puberty, this number has declined to around 300,000 – 500,000. Each month, during the reproductive years of our lives, we activate a handful of follicles to progress through the stages toward producing an egg. Out of this group, one follicle (the dominant follicle) is selected each month to proceed to the pre-ovulatory stage while the rest undergo atresia.
Throughout these reproductive years of our lives, for every one dominant follicle we select, we lose, on average, 1,000 primordial follicles! Talk about natural selection! Nature is one picky mistress!
FSH and your ovarian reserve
So, who decides how many follicles need to be sacrificed in order to select one singular dominant one? The head of this selection committee is a hormone called Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH).
As its name implies, FSH stimulates a selected group of follicles each month to begin the process of moving through the pre-ovulatory development phases with one of these lucky contestants emerging in the end as the dominant follicle. It’s kind of like a massive cellular production of The Hunger Games going on inside your body each month!
Your FSH levels are extremely important in regulating your ovarian reserve. If FSH levels become elevated, more follicles will be stimulated than are necessary causing more to be sacrificed each month leading to a depletion in the ovarian reserves. Conversely, if FSH levels are low, this can cause a reduction in activated follicles leading to a failure to ovulate. For these reasons, balanced FSH levels are imperative for rock-solid fertility.
The affect of estrogen dominance on ovarian aging
I want to add in here that estrogen plays a rather large role in the level of FSH because of the feedback loop that exists between the ovaries and the hypothalamus. As your follicles grow, your ovaries release larger and larger amounts of estrogen, which tells your hypothalamus to slow down production of FSH.
If a woman is estrogen dominant, meaning that her body has too much estrogen in relation to progesterone, this can lower FSH levels, causing delayed ovulation or skipped ovulation.
The role of Inhibin B and AMH on your ovarian reserve
Just like estrogen, there are other balances and counterbalances that help to keep FSH in line. Its other counterbalances are two negative regulators called Inhibin B and Anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) which, when released, counter the effects of FSH.
What’s interesting about this particular system is that the main source of these two counterbalances (Inhibin B and AMH) are your follicles themselves. As FSH attempts to recruit follicles to be sacrificed in its morbid version of Hunger Games, the follicles themselves release an army of their own to defend its follicular population! Think of FSH as Donald Sutherland and Inhibin B/AMH as Jennifer Lawrence. Okay, I’ve beaten that analogy to death!
The issue with this system is that it’s a feedback loop that accelerates over time. The more follicles that are sacrificed, the less there are to release Inhibin B and AMH to defend against FSH, leading to higher FSH levels and fewer follicles! This is the cycle that eventually leads to a complete depletion of follicles and the end result of menopause.
This is also why high FSH often correlates with low AMH (anti-mullerian hormone) in test results.
How to slow down ovarian aging
So now that we understand the natural process of reproductive aging, let’s look into ways that we can slow this process down and see if we can find the secret to the fertility fountain of youth.
As we’ve seen, having balanced FSH levels is imperative to maintaining a healthy rate of reproductive aging. Remember, FSH gets counterbalanced by Inhibin B and AMH which come from follicles in your ovaries.
So, if you’re experiencing elevated FSH levels this is most likely due to an insufficient amount of these counterbalancing hormones due to a low ovarian reserve. Focusing your attention on lowering your FSH will not address the real problem of poor ovarian reserve.
If you want to preserve your fertility, your energy should be spent on protecting the follicles and oocytes that remain in your reserve. To do this we need to look at strengthening your pool of follicles at the cellular level.
We witness cellular aging every time we look in the mirror and cringe at the sight of a new wrinkle or an uninvited sagging in an area that once was firm and impervious to the pull of gravity! These same things are also happening to the cells within us that we can’t see.
Just as we provide our skin cells with lotions and potions to help keep them young, we also need to lend a helping hand to the unnoticed cells within us, specifically the ones we hope one day will become our beautiful babies!
The oocytes within your follicles are extremely susceptible to damage over time. These egg cells are produced in the first fetal stages of our lives and then subsequently “rest”, sometimes for as long as 45 years, until they are activated.
During this long resting period these cells can be weakened and damaged by toxins flowing through our body. Keeping these cells healthy and protected is not just important for your fertility, it’s also imperative for the health of your baby.
3 ways to strengthen and protect your follicles and oocyte cells
If we were to ask our cells what they want for Christmas each year, their answer would always be the same; Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)! They love this stuff! ATP is the battery power that we run on and is considered to be the energy engine of life as we know it. If you want happy cells you only need to remember these seven letters, M.O.R.E. A.T.P!
One way to raise your ATP levels is to boost your intake of B vitamins. They are essential to the conversion of food energy into your cell’s energy (ATP). When I say essential, I mean this ain’t gonna happen without B vitamins so make sure you are getting them in the form of food and a quality supplement – especially if you have a genetic defect like COMT or MTHFR. I recommend Thorne Research Basic B Complex.
Our cells need a constant supply of oxygen in order to function properly and remain healthy. Providing adequate oxygen to your cells is largely dependant on your nutrient intake. If you’re deficient in certain key nutrients then this can lead to premature cell death, inflammation and other serious health problems.
The most common deficiency I come across in women is iron. One of the main functions of dietary iron is to help your body produce hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin binds to the oxygen molecules you breathe in from the air and releases them into your tissues. A lack of iron can lead to anemia, which means not enough oxygen is being transferred and incorporated into cells.
Get your iron levels tested with this at home Iron Check. Remember to use code Hormones20 at checkout to get 20% off the price of the test.
Also, if you want to gain the most benefits from your iron intake, vitamin C can help. Vitamin C makes non-heme (vegetable-based) iron more bioavailable and also helps your body absorb more iron from the foods you eat.
Another way to oxygenate your cells is to give your circulatory system a boost. Castor oil packs are a good way to get your blood flowing and they have the added benefit of detoxifying your lymphatic system at the same time. Here’s a post I wrote about Castor Oil Packs.
Other ways to oxygenate – exercise and lots of movement in general, infrared saunas and abdominal massage therapy.
In addition to providing our cells with the energy and oxygen they need to flourish, we also need to give them defences against the harmful elements that they are constantly in contact with.
Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) are known as “free radicals” and have been shown to cause damage and death to the cells they come in contact with. Luckily our bodies have scavengers that travel around capturing these harmful radicals and removing them from our system. These heroic scavengers are called antioxidants. Antioxidants are your body’s scavengers of harmful free radicals that can damage your cells. When our levels of free radicals exceeds our ability to scavenge them, our bodies enter a state called oxidative stress (OS). Studies have shown that prolonged OS is one of the main factors involved in ovarian aging.
In one study, women with premature ovarian failure who had failed to become pregnant using IVF were given antioxidants which resulted in a reduction of free radicals and a high percentage rate of pregnancy on their next IVF attempt . This is pretty major stuff people!
Best Antioxidant Supplements For Fertility
Coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant that plays an essential role in fertility by helping the mitochondria produce energy that is used by our cells. Since egg cells are so large they require more energy to produce healthy eggs, making adequate amounts of Coq10 vital for this process. It’s safe to say this applies to sperm cells as well and has been shown to increase sperm motility and count.
As we age the amount of Coq10 in our bodies decreases which can lead to a decrease in the quality of our eggs. This is why it’s believed that Coq10 supplementation has been shown to improve ovarian reserve and egg quality. It also supports healthy pregnancy because the placenta contains a lot of CoQ10 to protect the fetus from oxidative stress and it helps prevent pre-eclampsia. I recommend supplementing using Designs for Health CoQ10 – dosage is 50-100mg a day.
N-Acetyl Cysteine or NAC is a precursor to glutathione, the mother of all antioxidants and has been shown to be a very powerful antioxidant. Glutathione protects the liver from damage and it plays a key role in preventing a host of conditions linked to inflammation. It is important for good egg quality and egg DNA, as well as sperm motility, count, morphology and reduction in DNA fragmentation. I recommend using Integrative Therapeutics NAC or Pure Encapsulations NAC. The recommended dose is 600 milligrams, twice daily for 28 days, up to 12 weeks.
S-Acetyl Glutathione with NAC by Designs for Health is another option for someone who just wants to take glutathione. Some people do better on NAC, whereas others do better on glutathione. It depends on the person and the budget, as glutathione is expensive. Start with NAC and gauge how you feel on it.
In conclusion, preserving your fertility is as much about protecting the health of your future baby as it is about protecting the health of your reproductive system (which impacts everything!).
Whether you’re a young woman who isn’t yet considering children or an older woman whose clock is loudly ticking, we all need to remember these tiny gifts (eggs) that we were born with and do everything we can to help protect them.
(NOTE: There have been some interesting advancements recently in the area of stem cells where studies are being done to find ways of growing new, young and healthy oocytes. These treatments might in the future be extremely helpful for women who are suffering from premature ovarian failure or poor ovarian reserve. The most promising treatment in this area is called OvaPrime. We will continue to keep an eye on these studies.)
 Tarin J J. Aetiology of age–associated aneuploidy: A mechanism based on the ‘free radical theory of ageing’. Hum Reprod, 1995, 10: 1563–1565
 Tamura H, Takasaki A, Miwa I, et al. Oxidative stress impairs oocyte quality and melatonin protects oocytes from free radical damage and improves fertilization rate. J Pineal Res, 2008, 44: 280–287