Most couples may spend a good deal of time discussing the joy of having a baby and when the best time is from a personal and financial perspective. You may spend a year or so doing things before you start a family or have another baby – things such as travelling, or saving money or moving into your new home to make room for a bigger family. But how much time do you take preparing your health and body for the pregnancy?
How healthy you and your partner are will to some degree determine how easy your pregnancy will be and how healthy your child will be. Quite a good investment then, especially when you consider that a little forward planning may benefit not only your child’s health but, some research suggests, it may determine the health of your children’s children!
This pre-conception preparation is ideal for a first or any subsequent child. It can be particularly important if you have had your children close together. Pregnancy and breastfeeding can leave you depleted and in need of a nutritional boost before another pregnancy. Benefits that you can hope for, if you and your partner take time to improve your health and nutritional status, include greater fertility, less likelihood of pregnancy health issues, reduced incidence of more serious pregnancy complications, more straightforward labour with improved healing afterwards, a healthy baby and successful breastfeeding. Not to mention the improvements in your energy and vitality and the clearing of any minor health issues.
How long should the preparation take?
This depends on your starting place. If you have been prone to immune or other health issues you may need longer but a rough guide is four months prior to starting to attempt to conceive. This allows time for the egg and the sperm to benefit fully from your dietary and lifestyle changes.
1. Gentle detoxification
In many cases this just means being mindful of what you are eating. The key things to avoid would be cigarettes, alcohol, coffee and limit sugar intake. Avoid fried foods, soft drinks and junk foods. With a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, wholefood cereals (such as oats, sourdough rye or wholemeal breads, brown or basmati rice), a variety of quality proteins such as fish, lean meat, eggs, nuts & seeds and pulses. Fish ideally three times a week and reduced intake of those fish that may be higher in mercury such as tuna, swordfish and shark.
Part of this eating plan will be to help you reach a good weight. If you are either over or underweight this can impact on your ovulation and menstruation and it may affect your fertility and the chance of a healthy pregnancy.
2. Reduce environmental toxins?
The sperm and ova are susceptible to damage during their maturation so during this 4 month period it is important to reduce environmental toxins. This may simply mean eating organic foods whenever possible to limit the pesticides that we ingest. It is also worthwhile going green in the cleaning department with non-chemical cleaners around the house. If you think about it one of the main exposure we have to chemicals is those found in body creams, make-up, shampoos, perfumes and hair dye. What we put on our skin goes within and can do damage to our cells so source brands that are organic and don’t use chemicals.
3. Special nutrients
Most women are aware that taking folic acid before pregnancy is required to decrease the risk of neural tube defects. The level required is a minimum of 400mcg per day and around 600mcg once the pregnancy has been established.
It is less well known that there are many other vital nutrients that we need in good amounts in pregnancy, and it is time to ensure these are adequate in your diet before becoming pregnant. For example B12 is also needed for neural tube development and in pregnancy iron requirements nearly double. If you start from low iron stores you will forever be playing catch-up during the pregnancy and may suffer from anaemia. It is thought that 12-16% of women are iron deficient and some studies suggest that as high as 36% may be deficient. So checking your iron stores with a blood test from your GP is well worthwhile so you can supplement if needed to get your iron into an acceptable range.
There is also increasing evidence of vitamin D deficiency in the general population and studies are showing that 30-40% of pregnant women may be marginally deficient. Bone health and immunity as well as reproductive health are just a few of the reasons to ensure you are getting adequate levels via your diet and through sunshine. In summer 10 minutes of sunshine a day between 11am and 3pm and without sunscreen is best – but please don’t burn.
Requirements for zinc also increase at the pre-conception stage. Zinc is extremely important for both male and female fertility. Semen has high levels of zinc and so inadequate levels may be implicated in poor sperm count and non viable sperm. Zinc is important before and during pregnancy and can be found in good quality (ideally grass fed) meat, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs and oats. In some cases improving digestive function will be needed to increase the availability of zinc.
4. Pre-conception check-up
It is good advice to go along to your GP 4-6 months before you want to start trying for a baby to have some general pre-conception checks. This may include your iron stores, vitamin D as well as the more usual rubella and other infection checks. The recommended tests may vary depending on your past and current health issues.
To learn more and for specific advice about diet and nutritional requirements and to achieve optimal pre-pregnancy health, it is advisable to see a naturopath with specific knowledge in this area. They will be likely to look at your hormonal balance, general and reproductive health, pre-conception health checks with your GP, gentle detoxification and will advise on diet and the best quality and safe levels of nutrient supplements.
Written by Naturopath Gina Fox, BHSc (nat), Grad. Cert. Reproductive Medicine
Fertile Ground Health Group, Albert Street Medical Centre, Suite 3, Level 6, 372-376 Albert Street, East Melbourne 3002. Ph 03 9419 9988. www.fertileground.com.au