Improving Mitochondrial Function in “Old” Eggs

Mitochondria are known as the “powerhouses” of cells.  They convert the food that you eat into the energy that your body uses. They’re the “engine” of your eggs.

Most cells in your body have hundreds of mitochondria in them. As your egg cells mature, going from a microscopic primordial follicle cell to a visible egg cell,  mitochondria multiply exponentially to 100,000–500,000 (or more) mitochondria in fully mature eggs. There are more mitochondria in one egg cell than in any other cell in the body!

The reason for this staggering increase is because the egg is actively preparing itself for the increased energy demands of successful fertilization and eventual embryo development.

Unfortunately, as you age, the number and efficiency of mitochondria decline.  This happens to both women and men. In all cells. Not just the eggs. This decrease is a result of aging so it’s not unique to your situation.

When it comes to reproduction, though, men don’t need to worry as much about mitochondria in the sperm cells.  While the egg cell is working hard to create up to a half a million mitochondria, there are only a couple of hundred in the sperm cell.  Once fertilization occurs, the fertilized egg actually destroys the mitochondria from the sperm. Only mom’s mitochondria survive and are inherited by the baby.

Before ovulation, the egg cell is attached to the wall of the ovary.  If it is fertilized and becomes an embryo, it reconnects to your body after implantation.   (study)

This means that during the window between ovulation and implantation (up to 7 days), the embryo is more or less free floating. It is dependent on energy produced by the existing mitochondria in the egg at the moment of ovulation.  More mitochondria are made only after the fertilized embryo implants into the uterus. (study)

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The progression of the egg cell (oocyte) from the ovary to the uterus takes over a week.  Mitochondria are needed to produce plenty of energy during this stage of development.  Image from wikimedia commons - Creative Commons license. 

Studies show that one of the disadvantages of "older" eggs is that they tend to be a little smaller and have fewer mitochondria than eggs from younger women. The shape and function of some of the mitochondria in older eggs has also been shown to be dysfunctional. This causes a decrease in the energy produced by the mitochondria. (study)

The older egg might have just enough mitochondria (and therefore energy) to allow for fertilization and the initial stages of embryonic development.  However, if there isn’t a surplus of mitochondria, the embryo will run out of “juice” and have problems with development before implantation can be achieved. (study).

To increase the egg quality so that fertilization and implantation of a healthy embryo can occur, you therefore need to increase the number and improve the efficiency of the mitochondria.  In fact, there are several ongoing trials that show that adding more mitochondria to the egg cell improves IVF outcomes.(study)

To have healthy mitochondria, your cells need all the building blocks for producing ATP. This includes plenty of vitamins such as riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3).  Your mitochondria also need minerals and nutrients such as magnesium, iron, manganese, and CoQ10.  (study)

Studies in animals show that a low protein diet specifically causes damage to the mitochondria in the egg cell.(study) Getting plenty of protein from a variety of sources is important in the weeks leading up to conception.

Mitochondrial function decreases as we age due in part to oxidative stress. Healthy mitochondria are part of a healthy egg, and inherent in this is a balance of oxidative stress. Getting plenty of antioxidant rich foods in your diet is important.

Insulin resistance is a specific cause of oxidative stress in the egg cells. Studies in animals show that insulin resistance impacts the mitochondrial function of the egg cell through increasing oxidative stress. (study)  Your preconception diet is important not only for the nutrients it provides but also for stabilizing your insulin levels. One more reason to reduce sugar and processed carbohydrates is to keep the mitochondria in the egg cell healthy!

Research-backed ways to improve mitochondrial function:

Here are some research-backed actions you can take today to improve your mitochondrial function and your egg quality.

Avoid taking medications that damage your mitochondria.  Acetaminophen, NSAIDs, some antibiotics, illegal drugs, statins, and l-DOPA have all been shown to damage mitochondrial function. Of course, talk to your doctor about any prescribed medications before you stop them. If you are taking NSAIDs or acetaminophen daily for inflammation, this is the time to figure out the root cause of the inflammation and do whatever you can to reduce your daily intake of anti-inflammatories.(study)

Giving your mitochondria the fuel that they need is vitally important. Protein and folate are both vital for mitochondrial health in the developing egg cell.  Omega-3 fatty acids, such as from fish oil, are also important for your mitochondria. (study)

Building muscle mass increases ATP production in the mitochondria. In a study with older participants, just two weeks of exercise training was enough to significantly improve mitochondrial activity. (study)  Other studies also show the benefit of moderate, regular exercise for increasing mitochondrial function. (study)

CoQ10 is more than just an antioxidant.  Studies show that CoQ10 is important for mitochondrial function in the egg cells.  In animal studies, ensuring enough CoQ10 has been shown to reverse age-related mitochondrial decline in egg cells. (study)

If you aren’t getting enough of the nutrients needed for mitochondrial function from your diet, quality supplements can fill in the gaps. Supplements that have been shown to improve mitochondrial function include CoQ10, NAC, and magnesium.(study)

5 Steps you can take today to boost mitochondrial function:

  • Make sure you are getting enough CoQ10 in your diet. Foods rich in CoQ10 include organ meats such as heart and liver and meats such as beef and pork. If you aren’t getting enough CoQ10 via your diet, consider supplementing.
  • Grab your headphones, put on a podcast or some music, and get outside and get some exercise today. Moderate, regular exercise will help to increase mitochondrial function.
  • Have fatty fish like wild salmon, herring, mackerel, or sardines several times a week. Fish are a great source of both protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Go through your medicine cabinet to see if any of the OTC medications you take regularly could be affecting your mitochondria.
  • Today is the day to start cutting back on sugar and processed carbohydrates in order to stabilize your insulin levels. Just say NO! to sodas and sugar-sweetened drinks. Switch out flavored teas for soda or drink only water.