Whether you are actively trying to have a baby or looking to conceive “in a few years,” it’s safe to say that it’s not too early to prepare for pregnancy.
Many parents often grow their concern for a healthy baby the moment they find out they’re pregnant. But the truth is that we – and we mean “we” as in men and women- need to be thinking about our physical health and pregnancy way before the child arrives, and even before conception.
Why should we care about preconception? Unfortunately, babies these days are born “polluted” from what we download to them in utero. According to one Environmental Working Group study, a total of 232 toxic chemicals were found in umbilical cord blood. A different study found 287 different industrial chemicals and pollutants, many of which are toxic to the brain and nervous system and known to cause cancer in humans.
The greater, long-term impact of environmental toxins on a fetus is still unknown. Luckily, some precautionary actions can help you prepare for pregnancy and better the chances of having a healthy baby.
Dr. Lisa Hunt, D.O. from Holtorf Medical Group answers our reader’s questions on all things preconception – for both men and women. Whether this is your first, second, or tenth baby, Dr. Hunt shares some tips to help you get ready for the healthiest pregnancy possible.
How soon should females start “prepping” for pregnancy?
Dr. Hunt: Health experts often recommend planning for pregnancy at least one year prior to attempting to become pregnant. However, some begin their preparations as early as two years prior to when they plan to become pregnant. There are many ways to prep your body for pregnancy but overall, it is important to build a base of wellness by developing your best mental, physical health for pregnancy.
Some of the most important aspects of mental and physical wellness are diet and nutrition. Ideally, those seeking to become pregnant have a diet composed primarily of high-quality whole foods. This includes proteins like freshly caught fish, chicken, and grass-fed beef. Those who follow a plant-based diet should aim to increase their intake of protein-rich substances like quinoa and spirulina.
Supplements are another crucial aspect of nourishing your body. Typically, health practitioners have ignored the need for vitamin supplements until pregnancy has been confirmed. This is can be too late, as is often the case with folate, a prenatal vitamin since neural tube defects occur in the first month of pregnancy (risks include brain development, spina bifida, and oral clefts).
Additionally, the importance of finding a doctor you trust to help you in the process cannot be understated. When you start planning for pregnancy, the first step is to consult a physician specializing in women’s reproductive health to ask all questions you may have. Make sure you find a physician you feel comfortable with to help you along the way, through pre-pregnancy, and each trimester until the birth of your child.
How early should females get off of the pill before trying to conceive?
Dr. Hunt: One of the most obvious changes to make before trying to become pregnant is to halt any birth control. Many contraceptives, including the pill, ring, or patch prevent ovulation by influencing hormone production. After cessation of these treatments, it may take some time for your cycle to normalize and pregnancy to become possible. This amount of time varies from person to person. Some people may need only a month to conceive after no longer being on the pill while it is common for others to take two to three months. However, it is always best to discuss this with your doctor who knows your individual case.
If you or partner are taking an oral contraceptives, it is especially important to make sure you are getting enough nutrients. Many symptoms and conditions associated with oral contraceptives (headaches, disturbed protein metabolism, osteoporosis, anemia, impaired blood sugar regulation, and other) are primarily connected to the diminished nutrient levels caused by the drug. When considering OC induced nutrient depletions, it is important to keep in mind they may be compounding existing deficiencies from factors such as diet, lifestyle, medications, health conditions, genetics, and stress. Studies have identified the following nutrients as being reduced with OC use: folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc. On the flip side, they have been shown to cause elevated levels of vitamin K, iron, and copper, which is also not ideal.
Folate requirements are especially high during pregnancy and lactation when demands of the mother and child are greater than usual. With such strong evidence supporting the need for folate, doctors are now recommending 400 ug/day for women who have the potential to conceive, and to continue this protocol throughout the first trimester. This is just one reason why it is important to always prioritize your health and make sure you are getting enough nutrients: even if you are several years away from when you plan to have children, you can benefit from implementing pre-pregnancy strategies now.
When it comes to prenatal supplements, what should we look for in one? And how early should we start taking them?
Dr. Hunt: It can be beneficial to begin supplementation a full year prior to becoming pregnant. Studies suggest that taking prenatal supplements can notably reduce the risk of birth defects and other pregnancy-related complications.
Some key elements of a prenatal supplement include: Folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin C, vitamin D3, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, calcium, selenium, iodine, niacin, omega-3, riboflavin, and thiamine. But again, make sure you discuss with your doctor what course of supplementation will be best for you and your unique situation.
How does our diet play a role in preconception? Can our diet effect my future baby?
Dr. Hunt: Proper nutrition is hugely important for overall wellness, especially when prepping for pregnancy. One of the best ways to attain better nutrition is through diet. Maintaining a diet composed primarily of high-quality whole foods that are rich in protein and healthy fats like omega-3 (which support neurological function and development) is an effective way to prepare for pregnancy. It is also advised to avoid highly processed and sugary foods as they can disrupt hormones and negatively influence fertility.
What are the ways we can best normalize our hormones after getting off of the pill?
Fueling your body with enough calories and the optimal macronutrient ratio is critical to healing your hormones. Keeping your blood sugar stable will do wonders for your hormone health. This is because imbalances in your insulin response can stop hormones from triggering ovulation and a normal cycle. It is important to make sure you are eating regularly because chronic undereating, even if it is unintentional, often causes hormonal problems.
Diet’s critical role in reproduction is evident in the fact that sex hormones are made primarily from cholesterol, which is produced from eating fat. And when you are not consuming enough fat to produce adequate cholesterol, your body can struggle to make an appropriate amount of these hormones. Consuming fat-containing foods like beef, lamb, poultry, coconut, avocado, salmon, or eggs at every meal will go a long way in helping to rebalance your hormones.
Moreover, being mindful of your gut health can also help stabilize your hormones. There are certain beneficial bacteria in your gut, known as the estrobolome, that help remove used estrogen from your body. Synthetic estrogen bombards your body – and especially your gut – when you are using estrogen-containing birth control. When you compare that to how estrogen in a normal cycle changes over time, the constant stream of estrogen in birth control can be a lot for your body to handle.
Also, using hormonal birth control can have a negative impact on the health of your gut bacteria and can lead to gut dysbiosis after years of oral hormonal contraceptive use.
Integrating probiotics into your diet along with a professional quality calcium d-glucarate supplement is an effective way to improve the health of your gut and consequently your reproductive system.
Hormonal birth control is notorious for depleting the body of key nutrients. Many of these nutrients play an important role in the vitality of the reproductive system. Without improving your nutritional status, achieving hormonal balance, especially after quitting birth control, can be difficult.
Some of the key vitamins and minerals to focus on include:
- B vitamins: Studies have shown that women using birth control can experience a sharp decline in their levels of B vitamins, particularly vitamin B12 and vitamin B6.
- Vitamin C: The high levels of estrogen in birth control that contain synthetic estrogen are associated with a decrease in levels of Vitamin C.
- Minerals: Zinc, selenium, phosphorus, and magnesium are all affected by hormonal birth control. The body’s cellular processes rely on minerals to help it carry out daily functions. And when these minerals get depleted from birth control use, your body has a hard time functioning optimally.
Managing your stress, getting enough sleep, and exercising moderately will help keep both your blood sugar and hormones balanced and healthy. The body wants to be healthy and giving it the optimal conditions to do so will help your body find balance after birth control.
You should also be aware of things in your environment affecting your hormones. For example, it is recommended to minimize your exposure to xenoestrogens, which are commonly used in skincare, home cleaning products, and plastics. These chemicals mimic estrogen in our bodies and can throw off your own hormone production.
Lastly, an important step when being intentional about restoring your body’s balance is to see a doctor. Working with a doctor who can evaluate your individual situation is a great way to find out what your body specifically needs.
What about men? What should males focus on in regards to preconception?
Maintain a Healthy Weight:
Research has indicated that being overweight or obese can affect a man’s sperm quality. It can lead to a reduced sperm count and a decrease in their ability to swim, as well as potentially damaged genetic material (DNA) in the sperm, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Be Mindful of Medical Conditions:
Effectively managing chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, may improve a man’s chances of getting his partner pregnant, suggests The American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Other medical conditions, such as cystic fibrosis or varicoceles (enlarged veins in the scrotum that cause overheating), may also affect male fertility.
Additionally, some medications used to treat high blood pressure (beta-blockers), depression and anxiety (SSRIs), pain (long-term opiates), and an enlarged prostate (finasteride), could have a negative impact on fertility.
Research has shown that smoking significantly impacts sperm health. Male smokers are more likely to have low sperm counts and decreased sperm movement, and they have higher numbers of abnormally shaped sperm.
Avoid the Heat:
Men who frequently use hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms, especially for long periods of time, may decrease their sperm count due to the increase in scrotal temperatures. However, heat exposure does not have a permanent effect as sperm health could return to normal in a few months once a man stops going into a hot tub or sauna.
Are there any tests that men and women should get done prior to conceiving?
Dr. Hunt: Prior to conceiving, both men and women should have their thyroid levels, adrenal levels, and sex hormone levels tested. It is also recommended to check for insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.
Toxicity testing should be done 3 to 6 months before trying to conceive in order to eliminate any heavy metals or chemicals from plastics or pesticides from the body.
Lifestyle habits should also be evaluated prior to conceiving. It is important to make sure you do not suffer from any nutritional deficiencies due to poor diet, you participate in regular exercise and have a healthy sleep schedule.
If we’re currently dealing with mold or heavy metal issues, should we get this cleared prior to conception?
Dr. Hunt: Toxin exposure is another element of pregnancy prep that is often not addressed until conception. However, toxin buildup can cause serious harm to both mother and child during pregnancy. The first step in pregnancy planning should be to stop using any toxic substances such as recreational drugs and nicotine products while also limiting alcohol intake. Aspiring mothers should also consider limiting their exposure to toxins found in everyday products. Many cleaning, beauty, and health products contain endocrine-disrupting substances that can disrupt hormone balance and inhibit fertility.
Ideally, these toxin-reducing practices are implemented far in advance, so the body has time to flush out any residual toxins prior to becoming pregnant.