A Novel Approach to Improving Egg Quality: Telomere Length

Understanding why egg quality declines with age can provide insight into how to slow down the aging process.

Shortened telomeres due to oxidative stress in the egg cell is the most logical explanation for poor egg quality, in my opinion.  It ties together the need to reduce oxidative stress, increase melatonin and sleep, and eliminate toxic chemicals such as BPA.  It is also the direct result of chromosomes not dividing correctly.

What are telomeres?

Your cells are dividing all the time, replicating their DNA and creating new cells as the old ones wear out.

Think about your skin cells. You lose dead skin every day, and new skin cells take their place.

When your body creates new cells, the DNA inside the nucleus is copied. All 46 of your chromosomes get duplicated so that your new cell has the same genes as the parent cell.

At the end of each chromosome is a telomere. This is a region of the chromosome that acts as a cap at the end -- kind of like the end of a shoelace. The telomere keeps the end of the chromosome safe from replication errors. It also keeps the chromosomes from accidentally sticking together.

The cells in your body can replicate many times before the telomeres at the end get too short. Once the cells have reached that limit, though, they end up going through senescence or cell death.

Another way that telomeres can shorten, though, is due to oxidative stress in the cells.

Your egg cells are unique.  When a girl is born, the eggs stop development.  They stay dormant until puberty.  During each menstrual cycle, they resume cell division to prepare for ovulation.

Unlike other cells that have gone through many cycles of replication throughout their lifetime, egg cells only go through a few cell divisions.  However, the replication must be perfect for a quality egg since that 1 egg cell is multiplied to create an entire human being.

Thus, oxidative stress in the follicles can result in abnormal chromosome division. Egg quality decreases and infertility increases.

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What causes shorter telomeres?

Studies show that increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the cell causes oxidative damage. This is the main cause of telomere shortening in the egg cells. (study)

How do short telomeres affect fertility?

Shortened telomeres could be at the heart of infertility as you age. In fact, some researchers think this is the main cause of infertility in aging. Chromosomal abnormalities and poor egg quality are a direct result of short telomeres. (study)

Research directly links shorter telomeres to chromosomal errors. Mothers with shorter telomeres are more likely to have errors in the processes by which the chromosomes replicate and divide. This leads to a higher rate of Down syndrome in egg cells with shorter telomeres. (study)(study)

Your genes impact telomere length:

Your genes also play a role in how long your telomeres are. Some people carry genetic variants that are associated with shorter telomeres. Others have variants that cause longer telomeres.

If you have your genetic data from 23andMe, Ancestry.com, or a similar company, you can check to see if you carry common genetic variants associated with shorter telomeres.  If you do carry these variants, focus on eliminating the detrimental lifestyle choices (below).

Check your genetic data for rs10069690 :

  • T/T: decreased telomerase activity, shorter telomeres (study)
  • C/T: decreased telomerase, shorter telomeres
  • C/C: normal telomerase

Check your genetic data for rs2736100:

  • C/C: normal
  • A/C: normal
  • A/A: decreased telomere length (study)

Lifestyle choices can shorten your telomeres:

Here are some of the studies on how lifestyle choices affect telomere length:

  • A study of Indian women undergoing ART found that tobacco use may shorten telomeres. (study) Other studies confirm this result. Exposure to cigarette smoke shortens telomeres. (study)
  • A sedentary lifestyle may cause shorter telomeres. In fact, women who were sedentary had shorter telomeres equal to 4.4 years of aging. (study)
  • Exposure to low levels of BPA (in plastics) decreases telomerase activity causing shorter telomeres. (study)
  • Not sleeping enough, or having poor quality sleep, may shorten telomeres. (study)
  • Staying up too late is also associated with shorter telomere length. (study)
  • Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, may cause shorter telomere length. (study)
  • A lack of fiber in the diet connects to shorter telomere length. (study)
  • The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the diet is important to telomere length. A lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio may increase telomere length. (study)

What can I do to lengthen my telomeres??

Your body produces an enzyme called telomerase that can add to the end of telomeres, lengthening them.

Telomerase is naturally active in stem cells and some immune cells. One way cancer can grow is through activating telomerase.

So what can you do to increase telomerase? Supplemental melatonin increase telomerase in an animal study. The study showed that melatonin increased telomere length and the number of viable egg cells. One more reason to focus on sleep! Blocking blue light at night from TV, cell phones, and laptops can increase melatonin. (study)

Astragalus, a traditional Chinese medicine herb, may help lengthen telomeres. Several clinical trials show astragalus components can lengthen telomeres by activating telomerase. Besides lengthening telomeres, it is also anti-inflammatory. (study) (study)

5 ways you can lengthen your telomeres today:

There are several natural, anti-aging things you can do to lengthen your telomeres.

  1. Cut out sugar sweetened beverages! Swap out your daily soda for an herbal tea.
  2. Get active. You don’t have to go out and jog 5 miles every day - moderate activity is enough to lengthen telomeres.
  3. Increase your intake of omega-3 fats through eating mercury-safe fish. Decrease your consumption of omega-6 fats by cutting out fried foods.
  4. Make sure you are getting enough fiber in your diet. Replace refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, and packaged foods) with whole foods instead.
  5. Sleep well! Go to bed at a reasonable hour and focus on getting quality sleep.