Chewing the fat(ty acids)
We’ve known for quite a while that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts and seeds, are beneficial to the body. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), omega-3s have been shown to protect the heart from cardiovascular disease. At CU Advanced Reproductive Medicine, we have been studying the link between omega-3s and fertility for years.
In 2016, we uncovered a relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and an increase in ovarian reserves. The following year, our research showed that omega-3 supplements could improve fertility in obese women. In 2018, we continued to research the impact of omega-3s on fertility. While more study is necessary, we’ve discovered valuable insight into the effect of these fatty acids, and nutrition in general, on a woman’s fertility.
The type of fat a woman consumes matters
Our research has focused on the effects of fats on female fertility, and we found that not all fats are equal. Diets that were high in trans fats are linked to lower fertility rates and anovulation.
Trans fats occur naturally in foods like milk and meat but are largely an artificial additive in food. The American Heart Association identifies partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods as the primary source of trans fats. Often, trans fats are associated with deep fried foods but can also be found in frozen pizza, pie crusts, biscuits and margarine.
An NIH study found that each 2 percent increase in the intake of energy from trans unsaturated fats, as opposed to energy from carbohydrates, was associated with a 73 percent greater risk of ovulatory infertility. The study also determined that consumption of trans fat, rather than monounsaturated fats, was associated with a two times greater chance of ovulatory infertility. The key takeaway from this study is that consuming trans fats, which we already know has a significant impact on cholesterol and can increase the risks of heart disease and stroke, can result in lower fertility in women.
The case for putting omega-3 fatty acids on the menu
As far as how they affect us, omega-3s are essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot produce. This means that we must get them from things we consume. Some foods that contain high amounts omega-3s include:
- Fish, especially cold-water fish such as tuna and salmon.
- Seeds and nuts, like chia seeds and walnuts.
- Plant oils, such as soybean and canola oils.
- Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and Brussels sprouts.
Traditionally humans have gotten all the omega-3s we needed through foods like these. But this was long ago, before the agricultural changes that resulted in humans, and the cattle we consume, eating more grains than our ancient ancestors and less foods rich in omega-3s. But we also now have the option to take dietary supplements with omega-3s such as fish oil, fish liver oil and flaxseed oil.
Types of omega-3 fatty acids
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA and EPA are most commonly found in seafood, while ALA is typically found in plant oils.
Studies have demonstrated that omega-3s may improve ovulation. Consumption of DHA fatty acids has shown an increase in progesterone, which is a hormone that regulates the condition of the lining of the uterus and is essential to pregnancy. DHA consumption has also shown a decrease in anovulation.
In another NIH study, a link between a woman’s reproductive lifespan and dietary omega-3 fatty acids was found. It was determined that a lifelong consumption of a diet rich in omega-3s could increase the egg quality and the health of the ovarian reserve of mothers of advanced age.
IVF and omega-3s
Once a woman or couple decides to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF), the chances are they have tried a number of other options. IVF is rarely the first option, but when it is used we seek opportunities to improve the chances of IVF success. For instance, we recommend acupuncture for our patients undergoing IVF because it has been shown to increase blood flow to the ovaries and uterus.
It has been proven in an Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) study that the probability of pregnancy and live birth increased for women using assisted reproductive technology who regularly consumed omega-3s. With this in mind, we believe that omega-3s would be beneficial for all women trying to get pregnant, whether using IVF or trying naturally.
Our recommendations for pregnancy nutrition
While more study on the effects of omega-3s is necessary, it is clear that there are fertility benefits to this fatty acid. At CU Advanced Reproductive Medicine, we are committed to more research into the topic and providing the best possible information to our patients.
We believe that omega-3s should be more of a key focus during preconception counseling appointments. This is a crucial opportunity to work with patients to improve their chances of getting pregnant. Omega-3s have been underutilized and are a practical option for improving a woman’s ovarian reserve and fertility overall.