We all have a basic grasp on the vocabulary that goes hand in hand with reproductive cycles. The tiny miracles that take place in our bodies everyday, unbeknownst to us. We know what we need to, to get by.
But how much do we really know about the detail of our reproductive cycles? What is the difference between an ova or an oocyte, and what are they made up of? What are the individual parts of a sperm cell called, and what functions do they fulfil?
How does everything work? On a microscopic level? Maybe it has never been of much importance until now. The point at which you’re trying to conceive.
We’re here to make your fertility experience a little less confusing, and break down some of the most basic aspects of reproduction in terms that are helpful to anyone undergoing a fertility journey.
Let’s Talk Ovaries
The ovaries produce the egg cells, called the ova or oocytes.
The ovum itself has a central nucleus that contains the female’s genetic material; this, with the genetic material in the sperm cell, determines the inherited characteristics of the child. This is where it all starts.
Surrounding the nucleus is a cell plasma, or yolk, that contains nutritional elements essential to the developing egg cell, a tiny feeding system essential to its survival.
The formation of egg cells, or ova, is technically called oogenesis
The oocytes are then transported to the fallopian tube where fertilization by a sperm may occur. If an egg does not become fertilized within 24 hours of its eruption, it begins to degenerate.
In a nutshell, that is the structure of a female egg. Can you believe that such miraculous elements are present in the body?
Now about Sperm
We know the basics. What does a sperm cell look like? We can picture it. We’ve seen enough illustrations online. But why does it have that structure and what is it made up of? Ever wonder?
Sperm cells are gametes or sex cells. They carry a total of 23 chromosomes that are a result of a process known as meiosis.
The general structure or to be more specific; the general ‘morphology’ of sperm cells consists of the following parts:
The Distinctive head, the midpiece (body) and the tail.
The head is the most important part of the cell given that it contains the nucleus (genetic material) required to form a new organism – the real mechanics.
The head also contains the acrosome and acrosomal cap – which allow the sperm to lock in on the egg that it identifies as the one it should fertilise.
The mid piece of the sperm contains the mitochondria which are important in developing enough energy for the sperm to keep swimming.
The tail of the sperm is composed of a number of parts – in simple terms it is responsible for the waveform motion that allows for movement of the gamete.
And there you have it. A fairly straightforward breakdown of a tiny little gamete – a spectacular little swimmer.
Now that you’re clued up on the structure of both egg and sperm cells, it’s time to learn how to treat your cells optimally, so that they’re healthiest they can be.
Let’s Start with Egg Health
We all know that age is a defining factor in egg health and fertility, but what other circumstances can lead to deterioration of egg health?
We’ll break down six factors in detail for you:
- AGE – This is the main one. Since we are born with all of our eggs, the more we mature, the older our eggs become. Both quantity and quality start to decline around the age of 35 so your peak time of fertility is around your twenties.
- LIFESTYLE FACTORS – Maintaining a healthy lifestyle free from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs will have a massive impact on the quality of your eggs. All of these increase free radical damage. Being overweight or underweight with poor diet and nutrition can also be a contributing factor to poor egg health, as well as stress.
- BLOOD FLOW – Good circulation and blood circulation, further improved by practices such as acupuncture can help more nutrients to get through to the eggs and thus make them healthier.
- NUTRITION – Micronutrients all help in the eggs’ development, and Vitamin D is key to this, especially for women going through IVF. Studies show that those with higher levels of the sunshine vitamin had a better IVF outcome So many of our patients are deficient in Vitamin D, and this has been linked to hormonal imbalances. Omega 3 and Essential Fatty Acids may influence egg maturation, so make sure you have enough in your diet.
- NOURISHMENT – Protein provides the building blocks to healthy eggs and hormones; protein from fish, chicken and meat as well as vegetable sources are all super important to egg health.
- SLEEP AND HORMONAL BALANCE – It is imperative to maintain a good sleep schedule and to make sure that your hormones are in balance to ensure that you are providing your body with the fuel and energy that it needs to support healthy eggs.
Moving Onto Sperm Health
Sperm health and general health are very closely linked. Keeping up a balanced lifestyle can equip you to start your fertility journey on the right foot.
Here are some factors that will negatively affect sperm health:
- HIGH TEMPERATURES OR BEING RESTRICTED – Tight underwear and high temperatures can impair sperm production and function. Swap tight briefs for more breathable comfortable options. Hot pools, saunas and laptops are also cause for concern.
- ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION – Alcohol can lower testosterone levels, be the cause of erectile dysfunction and decrease levels of sperm production.
- SMOKING – It has been proven that smoking, even in cases where the patient was exposed to high levels of secondhand smoke only, had lower motility, and poor sperm morphology.
- BEING OVERWEIGHT – In many cases, men within an unhealthy weight range had lower sperm production levels, and struggled with fertility issues.
- SPORTS – High contact sports are high risk for those that are trying to conceive. Sports-related injuries can severely affect your fertility and sperm health, so protective gear is always essential.
Now you’re clued up on maintaining optimal health for your reproductive cells, but what are the other important aspects that you need to know when embarking on a fertility journey.
Let’s Discuss Embryo Grading – What does it mean?
During your fertility journey – whatever role you may play, be it recipient of IVF, surrogate or a partner, Embryo Grading will be a crucial part your journey
What does embryo grading mean? It is of course the rating of embryo quality to ascertain whether the embryo is of a high or low quality and whether it has a high potential for creating life.
How does embryo grading take place?
On Day 1 (16-18 hours) post insemination, we will know if an oocyte has fertilised
by seeing the 2 sets of DNA (pronuclei) within the oocyte.
On Day 2 the embryo should start dividing and be a 4 cell embryo.
On Day 3 embryos are referred to as “cleavage stage” embryos as they divide (cleave) and continue to grow. Embryos should have doubled in cell size from Day 2 to Day 3 meaning they should be an 8 cell embryo.
On Day 4, a process called compaction begins and all cells within the embryo are bound tightly together with the formation of jap junctions. There is no way of grading embryos during this stage of development, and therefore we often do not check embryos on Day 4 but rather leave them to “rest” within the incubator.
A cavity (fluid filled space) forms inside the compact embryo resulting in the formation of a blastocyst. The blastocyst then continues to enlarge until implantation within the endometrium. Blastocysts are graded according to their size due to the fluid filled space which increases over time; their inner cell mass which should be a small tight group of cells; the layer of cells surrounding the blastocyst known as the trophectoderm which ultimately becomes the placenta. See the image inserted below for blastocyst grading.
Who is responsible for the embryo grading and who conducts the process of egg retrieval and implantation?
An embryologist, that’s who.
What is a Embryologist?
An embryologist is a scientist who has a bachelor’s degree in the clinical sciences and who participates in continuing education to ensure that she is aware of any clinical developments in the field of embryology.
She specialises in the care of embryos from the time of egg retrieval to the time when the embryo is implanted into the woman’s uterus.
The embryologist is responsible for:
- Maintaining the lab environment for the duration of the embryo’s stay in the lab
- Ensuring that the lab environment mimics that of a woman’s uterus
- Inseminating the eggs to create embryos
- Freezing sperm, eggs and embryos
- Grading and observing the embryos
- Performing laser biopsies on certain embryos to screen for genetic diseases
So there you have it, a cheat sheet for all things fertility-related, a guide for reproductive cell health, if you will.
We wish you a smooth and well-informed fertility journey!