We all know about the importance of maintaining a healthy maternal diet to ensure the health and development of the baby during pregnancy.
What is now becoming increasingly clear is that a woman’s nutrition and diet prior to conception can also play an important role in fertility and pregnancy health.
A study led by Dr Jemma Evans has demonstrated how toxic proteins – produced in the body after consumption of sugary foods and found in browned and highly processed foods – may alter the environment in the womb and directly impact fertility.
The study, published in the journal Human Reproduction, looked at the effects of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) on the womb.
AGEs are formed when proteins in the body are exposed to high sugar levels. They can also be consumed by eating foods that are highly processed or cooked at high heat – for example, frying, grilling, caramelising or roasting – which changes certain proteins, causing them to become highly toxic.
“We analysed samples from the wombs of women with obesity, who generally have elevated levels of AGEs in the body as a whole and are more prone to infertility and pregnancy complications,” Dr Evans said.
For the first time, the team demonstrated that levels of AGEs in these women were elevated specifically within the womb where they triggered inflammation, making it more difficult for an embryo to implant and therefore reducing the likelihood of a pregnancy.
“We discovered that these toxic ‘by-products’ alter the cells in the lining of the womb,” Dr Evans said. “They also interfere with placental development, which may contribute to pregnancy complications.”
A simple change to boost fertility
AGE levels can be reduced using a drug or a highly controlled diet. A low-AGE diet has been shown to improve health outcomes in other diseases, such as insulin resistance in diabetes, in as little as four weeks, but it has never before been tested in infertility.
Dr Evans is planning a clinical trial of a simple eight-week dietary intervention aimed at reducing levels of toxic factors in the womb, to help more women fall pregnant and have healthier pregnancies.
Dr Evans said the womb is more likely to respond to a short-term intervention because, unlike the heart, kidneys or liver, the endometrium completely regenerates itself every 28 days.
“If successful, this simple dietary intervention may become a more holistic way to improve fertility and potentially avoid the need for costly measures such as IVF,” Dr Evans said.
ADVANCED GLYCATION END PRODUCTS (AGEs) FACTS
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are compounds which are formed when proteins, lipids or nucleic acids change during exposure to sugar.
The pool of AGEs found in the human body can either be formed naturally within the body, or accumulate through dietary exposure to certain foods or beverages.
AGEs are formed in foods by heat-processing such as frying, grilling, caramelising or roasting (examples include browned meat or toast). Highly processed foods have a high content of AGEs.
Preclinical studies suggest that otherwise healthy proteins in the body can react with sugars (such as those consumed in foods or beverages) to form AGEs within the body.
AGEs are known contributors to oxidative stress and inflammation and have been linked to the recent epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.