The preconception period is one the most important stages of your future baby’s health as both parents are setting up their baby’s DNA for life. Essentially inside an egg and sperm cell is the DNA or we could think of as blueprint, that will be joined together to create your baby. Dietary and lifestyle choices during the preconception period can influence this DNA for better, or worse. And it is not just the future health of your baby that you can influence. We now know that, in particular the health of the mother during preconception and pregnancy, can also influence her future grand children’s health. So, you can become super nanna even before your first child is conceived, pretty cool!!
What is the preconception period?
This is the time before conception and is usually about 4 months long. This is because it takes 65-90 days for a sperm cell to be produced and 90-120 days for an egg cell to mature. So, for men, the sperm they ejaculate today, was actually starting on the production line 3 months ago, and for women the egg they ovulated this month, was starting the maturation process around 3-4 months ago. Whatever has happened during this period, whether it be changes to diet, exposure to chemicals/ toxins (alcohol included), hormones, and stress can all influence on the health of this sperm or egg cell, and ultimately the child it produces. By addressing these areas, we can benefit the health of your future child.
It’s also important to note that many important growth processes happen during early pregnancy, often when a woman does not yet know she is pregnant. If you are still eating poorly, drinking alcohol, smoking or are deficient in important nutrients such as folate, choline and iodine in early pregnancy, then this could already have impacted on a baby’s health. This is why preconception care is so important
Benefits of preconception care
Getting nutrition and lifestyle choices correct during this time period is crucial. Some of the benefits of preconception care are:
For the couple:
- Improved fertility rates
- Prevention of pre-eclampsia during pregnancy
- Prevention of gestational diabetes
- Prevention of post-natal depression
- Reports of a generally healthier pregnancy with less fatigue, morning sickness and better overall wellbeing.
- Improving your own health as individuals so you are starting life as a parent in tip top shape. If you haven’t heard, being a parent is tough, so you want all the energy you can get!
For the baby’s future health:
- Prevention of obesity
- Prevention of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- Prevention of mood disorders
- Prevention of allergic disorders such as eczema and asthma
- Prevention of infertility and hypogonadism (reduced testicular and ovarian reserve)
- Improvement in IQ, emotional response and stress response in your child
- Improve your grandchildren’s health if you carry a girl. A female’s eggs are made during foetal development, so whatever you do during preconception and pregnancy affect’s her eggs, that will become your grandchildren!
Ok so we have established that preconception care is extremely important and not to be dismissed. This is the ultimate preventative health, and the starting point in your journey as parents. You will want to be doing everything you can to ensure the best health for your child.
The below are some points that need to be considered in preconception care.
The food you eat, will become the nutrients that help build your egg and sperm cells, that will make your baby. Would you want a baby made from sugar laden, preservative filled, chemically added food? Or fresh, local, whole food produce? Remember that you are trying to make another human life here, and what goes into each of your mouth’s will essentially create your baby. Your diet can also influence your time to conceive and pregnancy outcomes. Couples consuming a healthy whole foods diet have been shown to have a 4 times greater chance of conceiving than those consuming a Western style diet. Amazing new research has shown a poor diet in a man can directly affect conception and chances of a healthy pregnancy, by altering the embryo development in the first few days of pregnancy and also affecting the environment an embryo will grow.
A Mediterranean style diet has been shown to be the best for fertility and baby’s health outcomes. A Mediterranean diet has a focus on:
- Fresh, whole foods diet (nothing from a packet)
- The majority of your plate should be colourful vegetables (about half), and the rest with complex carbohydrates from starchy vegetables and whole grains, beans and legumes for protein and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil (see pyramid below).
- Lots of herbs and spices are used to flavour foods as these are high in antioxidants that support egg and sperm cell production and protect DNA.
- Adequate protein is important through beans, legumes, fish, seafood and small amounts of poultry and red meat ** (please be aware some fish should not be eaten do to mercury content. These are large fish such as shark, tuna, marlin, barramundi, king mackerel, and orange roughy).
- Try and eat as organic as possible to avoid exposure to chemicals/ pesticides (see more below).
- Meals should be eaten together or with friends and family, not in front of a television or screen to aid digestion.
- Alcohol: I get asked this question all the time, “How much can I drink while I am trying to conceive. My answer, “None”. In a study of couples who had had 2 or more failed IVF attempts, the women who abstained from alcohol had a 90% chance conceiving naturally within 3 yrs. The women who drank 3 drinks per week only had a 30% chance of conceiving. The researcher suggests similar patterns for couple conceiving naturally. Let’s just break that down- only 3 drinks per week, which could easily be completed in one night, dropped their chances of conceiving by a whopping 60%!!! It is just not worth going there. Alcohol has also been shown to negatively impact a man’s sperm health, and chances of conceiving.
- Coffee: I don’t recommend any more than 1 cup per day. 400mg coffee (which is equivalent to 2 double expressos) has been shown to impact fertility, and only just over 200mg coffee (1 double expresso) has been linked to low birth weight babies. Low birth weight babies have higher rates of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. If you are under stress, have been diagnosed with low progesterone levels or endometriosis, experience anxiety, breast tenderness or painful periods, do not consume at all.
Environmental toxin exposure
Research has linked the chemicals within our environment to increased allergic diseases, respiratory illness, autoimmune disease, obesity, hormonal disorders, cancer, autism, and other neurological disorders. A study looking at toxins in newborn cord blood showed over 230 different environmental toxins in newborns. A pregnant woman exposed to high levels of BPA, phthalates, and pesticides have been shown to give birth to babies with higher risk of autism, eczema, and future infertility. Pesticides, solvents, heavy metals and other toxins directly harm fertility for men and women in several ways: They directly cause stress and damage to egg and sperm cells. They disrupt hormones like oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone. They also impair the brain’s ability to communicate effectively with your ovaries & testicles. Therefore we want to try and minimise exposure as much as possible. Ways we can do this include:
- No smoking! Absolutely none, not even 1 a month. Cigarettes contains a harmful cocktail of chemicals and heavy metals that have ben directly linked with infertility in men and women.
- Try and buy organic food where possible and at least buy organic fruit and vegetables off the Dirty Dozen list, meat and eggs. Do not use pesticides or weed killers on your property.
- Avoid plastics- particular water bottles and eating hot foods or storing hot food in plastics.
- Have a look at your cleaning and personal care products, and look at switching these over to chemical free versions. The EWG is a great site to search your cleaning and personal care products that you use find out what is chemicals are lurking in there.
Body weight/ composition
Overweight and obese women are at a high risk for reproductive health issues. The risk of infertility, conception rates, miscarriage rates, and pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes, large and small for gestational weight babies, prematurity, increased risk of c-section and post partum haemorrhage, and congenital birth defects, are increased in obese women. They have poor reproductive outcomes in natural as well as assisted conception. For women underweight, you can also be at risk of hormonal imbalances and not ovulating. Women that are malnourished also have a higher chance of giving birth to low birth weight babies, which have higher risks of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in their life.
Overweight and obese men are more likely to have poor sperm quality and sexual dysfunction that can affect your ability to conceive and have a healthy baby. There are also links that suggest obesity can cause changes to the genes in the sperm cell leading to miscarriage. Amazingly an obese father has also been lined with potentially increasing the risk of obesity in their daughters!! It appears changes that happen in the sperm cell, can then affect the pancreatic function of their daughter, leading to insulin resistance and obesity.
Therefore, managing a healthy BMI through diet and exercise for both partners prior to conceiving is extremely important for fertility.
Stress and emotional considerations
Making a baby is not just about being in top physical health, but also mental health. You are bringing a new life into the world when you conceive. If you are stressed out, no baby is going to want to join that world! Stress also keeps us in fight- or- flight mode, which can shut down hormone production in men and women and has been shown to literally shrink men’s testicular cells and women’s ovaries. Read my blog here on how stress effects a man and woman’s fertility. It can also cause inflammation and tissue damage, affect our ability to think clearly and process emotions, and certainly impacts how we behave in our relationships with children, partners, coworkers, and friends. Preconception is also a good time discuss any relationship issues you have, how you will manage household tasks once the baby arrives, and also finances with having a baby. Exercise, meditation, breathing exercises and counselling where needed are all important considerations for managing your stress during preconception.
Address underlying hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies and other health conditions
Many hormonal issues such as PCOS, endometriosis, insulin resistance, nutritional deficiencies, low testosterone and thyroid conditions can affect fertility in men and women. Issues with methylation and your immune system can also impact fertility. Specific nutrients such as zinc, vitamin D, iodine, iron, folate, B12, selenium and omega 3 fatty acids are extremely important for fertility and making sure these are in ample amounts in both men and women should be looked at during preconception ( I have future posts planned for specific nutrients needed in men and women in preconception, stay tuned). If you have hormonal issues, this is also the time to address these, as they can often take at least 3 months to resolve depending on what is going on. For women on the pill or other hormonal contraception, I recommend stopping at least 6 months prior to trying to conceive (ideally a year, particularly if you have been using for a long period of time).
Poor gut health can increase inflammation and lead to immune issue that can cause infertility. Infections such as Ureaplasma and Mycoplasma in men and women can also affect your ability to conceive and maintain a pregnancy. A woman’s gut and vagina are the starting grounds to what your baby’s gut health will be and we now know this impacts on every area of their health. We want to get this right. Consuming a whole foods, colourful diverse diet, can improve gut health, along with avoiding sugary, fatty foods, and processed foods.
I hope this has outlined the importance of preconception care and some first steps you can start to take to improve your chances of conceing and growing a healthy baby.
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