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, and address any shortfalls, which will optimise chances of conception, wellbeing in pregnancy and the health of the baby.
This article looks at important interventions to consider prior to becoming pregnant to optimise health. It is important to note that some require additional time before conception, so should be considered carefully. However, below we highlight aspects of health that it is appropriate to focus on to support reproductive health.
It is beneficial to begin a preconception care program 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 digestive and liver supportive program (5R program).
During our busy westernised lifestyles, we are exposed to a myriad of environmental toxins, such as pesticides and fertilisers, chemicals from plastics, pollutants, smoking, alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs, heavy metals, chemicals such as parabens and SLS found in personal hygiene products, this list is not exhaustive. All these toxins (and more) can build up in our body and can be stored for years in our adipose tissue. They must 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 our own hormone balance and therefore on fertility. Exposure of the foetus in utero to toxins has also been shown to trigger epigenetic changes, which may not manifest until years later.
Therefore, carrying out a 5R program prior to conception will boost fertility and support a healthy foetus. It can also help to prevent unpleasant symptoms during pregnancy such as morning sickness. However, once you have begun detoxifying, stored toxins are liberated into the circulation, and it is therefore important not to conceive at this point. Pregnancy should be prevented until the detoxification program 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 you are unable to undergo a “preconception plan” or are already pregnant, it is still helpful to minimise exposure to toxins and gently support detoxification. You can do this 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.
- Including a good number of antioxidants such as zinc, selenium, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, Vitamin E, flavonoids, and polyphenols – these will help quench any free radicals created during detoxification.
- Increasing consumption of cruciferous and brassica vegetables, as well as onion, garlic, and leek to support Phase 2 liver detoxification. These provide sulphur for sulphation pathways and DIM to 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. A 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 breast feed. If the mother therefore has a healthy balance of gut flora, this is reflected in the child.
You can improve gut flora throughout pregnancy by taking probiotics, however, again 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 excretion, so enhancing fertility as well.
Here are some ways in which you can improve gut health without carrying out a full 4R programme:
- Maintain adequate zinc levels zinc is very important for the production of stomach acid, as well as for maintenance of the epithelial tissue.
- Consume prebiotic foods such as baked apples, chicory, and artichoke.
- 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 including ADHD, anxiety, depression, as well as schizophrenia in adulthood. It also increases the mother’s risk of postnatal depression. As stress and anxiety can tend to increase during pregnancy due to apprehension and potential health concerns, it is important to begin to manage stress before pregnancy. So, when the additional stresses of pregnancy come along, we are better equipped to cope with them. Again, 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.
- Get sufficient magnesium – magnesium is known as nature’s tranquiliser, it has a calming effect and supports normal nervous system function. Consume dark leafy green vegetables and consider a supplement (200-400mg/day). 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 a long-term effect 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 at the point of conception, this is also the case for vitamin D. So, ensuring optimum nutrient status before pregnancy is much more beneficial to the mother and the child.
Below is a summary of nutrients of relevance for preconception, fertility, and pregnancy.
Folic acid (methyl folate) – Reduces neural tube defect risks such as Spina Bifida.. Research indicates the benefit for a healthy full-term pregnancy for folic acid supplementation beyond the previously advised twelve weeks, with recommendations for it to be taken preconception and throughout pregnancy at 400ug/day. Folic acid supplementation is logical because it is a methyl donor, and hence, a growth promoter; there is lots of growth taking place in pregnancy and it is needed to support this. (*Please note we recommend methyl folate and not folic acid for supplements – details further below).
B Complex Vitamins – Necessary to produce DNA and RNA for egg and sperm. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are important for genetic coding and improving sperm count in men. Vitamin B6 is believed to increase fertility for women.
Beta Carotene (for vitamin A) – Antioxidant protection for both sperm and egg DNA. (**We only recommend the 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, enhancing sperm quality.
Vitamin D – Is important during pregnancy to help build your growing baby’s bones. Also, a vitamin needed for health of all organs and tissues. All pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised by Government to take a vitamin D supplement. (***We recommend vitamin ‘D3’ and not D2 as this is the most bio effective 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 for 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 prostaglandin, hence the importance of essential fatty acids supplementation for quality, motility, and sperm numbers. Omega 3 is important for the health of every cell , particularly for eye and brain health of the developing foetus.
- The gut and the liver are responsible for the detoxification and excretion of waste hormones, including oestrogen. Therefore, if the gut and liver are under stress, it can have an effect on reproductive health and fertility. A preconception plant that supports gut and liver health, such as a 4R programme is a good idea prior to conception.
- It is important that someone does not plan to conceive during a 4R programme, it should be carried out 3-6 months before conception.
- Many studies have identified a link between healthy gut flora in the mother and the health of the baby. A healthy maternal gut flora has been linked to reduced inflammation, asthma, eczema, and coeliac disease risk as well as improved immune function. Therefore, supporting gut flora with fermented foods, prebiotics and live bacteria is helpful.
- Stress and anxiety can tend to increase during pregnancy due to apprehension and potential health concerns, it is important to begin to manage stress before pregnancy. So, when the additional stresses of pregnancy come along, we are better equipped to cope with them.
- During pregnancy and breast feeding, the mother will provide nutrients to the child at the expense of her own health. This can have a long-term effect 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. Considering a pregnancy appropriate multi vitamin and mineral is important at this time.
- Nutrients important for preconception and pregnancy are: methyl folate, B vitamins, vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as zinc and omega 3s.
If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me by phone or email at any time.
Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team
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Last updated on 22nd February 2022 by cytoffice