Planning a pregnancy is both an exciting and important time. It is always favourable for both mother and father to assess their health before conceiving a child as this will optimise chances of conception, wellbeing in pregnancy and the health of the baby.
In previous articles we have outlined the effects of maternal diet on gene expression and how preconception detoxification can enhance fertility and the health of the unborn child. This article will encompass both of these topics discussing the many influences on both maternal health and that of the unborn child. It will outline the ways in which we can optimise not only the health of the child, but also the health of the adult that child will become.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that an increased susceptibility to chronic disease in adulthood originated in part during foetal development
In light of this, it is advantageous to begin addressing health prior to conception. Below are areas which should be given consideration before planning a pregnancy:
As previously mentioned, it is much more beneficial to begin a preconception care programme at least 3 (preferably 6-12) months before planning to conceive. If you have this time prior to pregnancy it is a good idea to consider a detoxification program.
The modern world exposes us to a myriad of environmental toxins, including pesticides and fertilisers, chemicals from plastics, pollutants, smoking, alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs, heavy metals and chemicals such as parabens and SLS found in many personal hygiene products. All of these toxins (and more) can accumulate in the body and be stored for years in our adipose tissue. They then have to be processed by the liver, which is also responsible for detoxifying our own natural hormones, particularly oestrogen. If the liver is under strain from detoxifying external toxins it can have a detrimental effect on hormone balance, and consequently fertility. Exposure of the foetus to toxins has also been shown to trigger epigenetic changes, which may not manifest until years later.
Carrying out a detoxification or 4R program (* see below for details) prior to conception will boost fertility and support a healthy foetus, and it can also help to prevent unpleasant symptoms during pregnancy such as morning sickness. However, once detoxification begins, stored toxins are liberated into circulation and it is important not to conceive at this point. Pregnancy ideally should be prevented until the detoxification programme is complete. If you would like to carry out a detoxification programme it is advisable to seek the advice of a qualified Nutritional Therapist, as needs will be specific to each individual. Cytoplan Blog: The Importance of detoxification for preconception planning.
If unable to undergo a “detox” or are already pregnant it is still helpful to minimise exposure to toxins and gently support detoxification. This can be done by;
- Choosing organic, paraben and SLS free personal hygiene products
- Avoiding alcohol and smoking
- Choosing organic produce
- Avoiding plastic food and drink containers, particularly soft plastics and also avoid microwaving them.
- Have a good intake of antioxidants such as zinc, selenium, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, flavonoids and polyphenols – these will help quench any free radicals
- Increase consumption of cruciferous and brassica vegetables, as well as onions, garlic and leeks to support phase 2 liver detoxification. These foods provide sulphur for sulphation pathways and support healthy oestrogen clearance.
- Ensuring healthy bowel motility to prevent reabsorption of toxins and hormones in the digestive tract.
Look after your Digestive System
A good detoxification or 4R programme will also support the health of the gut. This is so important for optimal health throughout pregnancy. Many studies have identified a link between healthy gut flora in the mother and the health of the baby. Healthy maternal gut flora has been linked to reduced inflammation, asthma, eczema and coeliac disease risk, as well as improved immune function. The main reason for this is that during a natural birth the child will pass through the birth canal and pick up flora from the mother. As it does so the bacteria will inoculate the child’s sterile gut. This flora will also be passed onto the child through colostrum during the first breastfeed.
The gut flora can be improved during pregnancy by taking a probiotic; however, it is more beneficial to ensure that the gut is supported before conception. Performing a 4R program will really help to achieve a healthy gut flora as well as improving natural hormone balance and enhancing fertility.
Here are some ways that can improve gut health without carrying out a full 4R programme:
- Consume lemon in hot water first thing in the morning – to stimulate bile production
- Maintain adequate zinc levels – zinc is very important for the production of stomach acid as well as for maintenance of the epithelial tissue and hence the lining of the digestive system.
- Consume prebiotic foods such as baked apples, chicory, artichoke and root vegetables
- Consume fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi to support gut flora
- Take a multi-strain probiotic
- Consider a digestive enzyme to improve nutrient absorption, if this is impaired.
Stress during pregnancy has been shown to increase the risk of emotional disorders in children such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression, as well as schizophrenia in adulthood; it also increases the mother’s risk of postnatal depression. As stress and anxiety can increase during pregnancy due to apprehension and potential health concerns, it is important to begin to manage stress before conception, so, when the additional stresses of pregnancy come along, we are better equipped to cope with them. Stress can also reduce fertility.
Some stress relieving strategies are:
- Take a walk outside – studies have shown this reduces cortisol levels
- Try mindful meditation – many apps are available to help you with this
- Get adequate sleep. Cytoplan Blog; Support for Disturbed or Disrupted Sleep.
- Obtain sufficient magnesium. Known as nature’s tranquiliser, magnesium has a calming effect and supports normal nervous system function. Consume dark leafy green vegetables and consider a supplement (100-200mg/day elemental magnesium). You can also try a bath with 2 handfuls of Epsom salts, which are high in magnesium sulphate and can be absorbed through the skin to aid sleep and relaxation.
- Support normal nervous system function with Vitamin C, B5 and B6.
- Replace caffeine with calming teas such as valerian and chamomile, liquorice has also been shown to support the adrenal glands.
Fill the nutrition gap
At Cytoplan we often talk about the gap between optimum nutrient intake and the actual quantity of nutrients that we consume. During pregnancy and breastfeeding the mother will provide nutrients to the child at the expense of her own health. This can have long-term effects on the mother’s health, particularly if she has subsequent pregnancies within a short space of time. There is never a more important time to address this gap than when thinking about conceiving a child.
The importance of folate intake during pregnancy has long been understood, particularly for the prevention of neural tube defects. Many mothers will begin taking folate once they discover that they are pregnant. However, the most important time for adequate folate levels is actually at the point of conception, this is also the case for vitamin D. Ensuring optimum nutrient status before pregnancy is much more beneficial to the mother and child.
Below is a summary of nutrients of particular relevance for preconception, fertility and pregnancy:
Folic acid (methylfolate) – is a methyl donor and a growth promoter and reduces the risk of neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida. Research shows the benefit of folic acid supplementation beyond the previously advised twelve weeks, with recommendation to be taken preconception and throughout pregnancy @ 400ug/day. (**Please note we recommend methylfolate and not folic acid for supplements – details further below.)
B Complex Vitamins – necessary for the production of DNA and RNA. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are important for genetic coding and improving sperm count in men. Vitamin B6 is believed to increase fertility in women.
Beta Carotene (for vitamin A) – antioxidant protection for sperm and egg DNA. (***We only recommend beta carotene as the safe precursor to vitamin A in supplements.)
Vitamin C – a range of antioxidant benefits; also protective of sperm and internal DNA damage, and enhancing sperm quality.
Vitamin D – is important during pregnancy to help build the bones of the growing baby. It is also a vitamin needed for the health of all organs and tissue. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised by the government to take a vitamin D supplement. (****We recommend vitamin ‘D3’ and not D2 as this is the most bioeffective form of Vitamin D and is now available from a vegan source.)
Vitamin E – for antioxidant support and important for fertility for both sexes.
Zinc – an essential component of genetic material. Zinc deficiencies are linked to chromosome changes in male and female, reduced fertility and increased risk of miscarriage due to the impact on reproductive hormones. High concentrations of zinc are found in sperm, thus an essential mineral for healthy sperm and numbers.
Selenium – an antioxidant, essential to maintain chromosome integrity and important in miscarriage prevention and birth defects; also essential for sperm formation and numbers.
Omega 3 – an ‘essential fatty acid’ important for preconception in men and women, and during pregnancy for the developing baby. The anti-inflammatory support of omega 3 is particularly relevant for sustaining a full-term pregnancy. Semen is rich in prostaglandins, hence the importance of essential fatty acid supplementation for quality, motility and sperm numbers. Omega 3 is important for the health of every cell in the body, particularly for eye and brain health in the developing foetus.
*The 4 R’s
Remove: This phase involves the removal of stressors that may be having a negative effect on the gut. These can include toxins, gut irritating and allergy producing foods (the most common being gluten, diary or soy) and any dysbiotic bacteria, parasites or yeasts
Replace: This phase refers to replacing anything that may be lacking in the body or diet that is needed to support digestion. For example, digestive enzymes are needed for the digestion and absorption of nutrients but are often compromised by factors such as poor diet/lifestyle
Reinoculate: Once the harmful bacteria have been removed it is important to replenish and restore the gut with good bacteria either through probiotics or fermented foods
Repair: This phase refers to repairing the damage to the mucosal lining and regenerating new tissue. This includes providing nutrients that are specific for regeneration and may include supplements that assist in repair i.e. l-glutamine
**Folic Acid – for supplementation of folic acid we only recommend methylfolate. Methylfolate (5MTHF) is the most stable, safe and bioeffective form of folate. Read our article on folic acid and methylfolate: Cytoplan Blog: Methylfolate
*** Beta Carotene is a precursor of vitamin A found in plants, and it is enzymatically converted to vitamin A in the body, as it is required. Beta carotene is considered safer than taking vitamin A because the body only converts the amount it needs at any point in time. Hence, at Cytoplan we do not have vitamin A in any of our products intended for use in pregnancy or preconception – only beta carotene, the safe precursor. (Government advice recommends restricted vitamin A intake in pregnancy.) Cytoplan Beta Carotene
**** Vitamin D – when it comes to vitamin D supplementation vitamin D3 is the most bioeffective form of this nutrient, and far preferable to vitamin D2. At Cytoplan we only use and recommend vitamin D3 in a supplement form. Cytoplan Blog: The Health Benefits of Vitamin D
If you have any questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.
[email protected], 01684 310099
Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team: Joseph Forsyth, Simon Holdcroft and Clare Daley
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