Natural Preconception Care
Preconception care is a preparation process that a man and woman can undergo before they conceive a baby.
Yes, I wrote both man and woman. In general, our society places more expectation on women to do prep work before getting pregnant. However, both partners provide 50% of the material and DNA to make a baby. The way in which both partners eat and live can affect the DNA that they pass on to their children.
Why do preconception care?
It might not be surprising that being a healthy weight, having a healthy diet, optimal stores of nutrients and low stress levels are associated with good fertility. Natural preconception care is not just about fertility though. It’s also about the health of the future baby.
Before a woman’s egg is released at ovulation, it undergoes a process of development and maturation. This process takes about 120 days. It takes about 72-76 days for sperm to be produced. During this 3-4 month window, the developing egg and sperm are highly susceptible to changes in the environment.
Diet, nutritional stores, stress, environmental toxins, free radicals and radiation can affect the structure of the DNA that the egg and sperm carry and pass on to a future baby. Therefore, a major goal of naturopathic preconception care is to provide the best environment for making healthy sperm and eggs.
Preconception care also helps the future mother prepare for healthy pregnancy. Studies show that nutrient status in early pregnancy, sometimes before women even know they are pregnant, can affect her pregnancy health and outcomes for her baby. The goal is to start pregnancy with a ‘full tank’ of good health and nutrient stores.
The way that we eat and live can affect the health of our future children, and grandchildren
A long held naturopathic philosophy is that healthier parents will have healthier babies. Research is now backing this up. Here are just a few examples:
Smoking – Cigarette smoking causes damage to the DNA of sperm. Children of men who smoke have a higher chance of developing childhood cancer.
Overeating – One study showed that men who didn’t have food readily available (and were therefore less likely to overeat) had children that were less likely to die of heart disease. The grandchildren of men who had an abundance of food as a child, were more likely to die of diabetes.
Poor nutrition – Babies born to mothers with poor nutrition status were found to be born underweight but with the same amount of fat as average weight babies. This is sometimes called the “thin-fat” baby (like skinny-fat adults). It’s concerning because it may predispose them to metabolic problems later in life, such as diabetes.
Inflammatory diet and obesity – In an animal study, rats fed an inflammatory diet high in sugar and fat from preconception, through pregnancy and until weaning, passed down genetic programing for metabolic disease and dysfunctional mitochondria (parts of our cells responsible for energy production) to not only their children, but the next three generations.
Folate status – Folate is the most well known and supplemented nutrients in preconception care. For women, at least. This nutrient is important for gene regulation in both eggs and sperm. Supplementation in preconception and pregnancy is known to help prevent neural tube defects, pregnancy complications and preterm birth. This nutrient is not commonly talked about in preconception for men. However, studies show that when folate is restricted in humans and animals, sperm counts plummet.
Folate isn’t the only factor affecting risk of neural tube defects. Other related circumstances include low vitamin B12, pre-pregnancy obesity, pre-pregnancy diabetes and some medications. These are some of the many factors that are taken into account in holistic preconception care. Taking a folate supplement, or even better, a quality prenatal multivitamin is just one step towards preparing for a healthy baby.
Stages of preconception care
I like to think of natural preconception care in 2 stages – The Check Up & Clean Up, and The Build Up.
The Check Up & Clean Up
This stage involves:
- Cleaning up the diet. Moving towards an antiinflammatory, whole food diet and ditching processed foods, particularly those with artificial sugars and chemical additives.
- Reducing exposure to toxins. These might be recreational, such as drugs and alcohol; environmental, such as radiation, heavy metals, pesticides, personal care products or cleaning products; or medical toxins, as some medications affect fertility and a baby’s development during pregnancy.
- Working towards a healthy weight.
- Addressing chronic illness. Some illnesses affect fertility and are related to higher rates of pregnancy complications.
- Supporting detoxification systems as necessary, through lifestyle practices and supplements.
- Charting the woman’s menstrual cycle and learning about the days she is and isn’t fertile.
- Addressing stress, which impacts hormone balance and fertility for both men and women.
- Looking after gut health, to support healthy detoxification, absorption of nutrients, the health of the genital tract, and minimize harmful metabolites created by “bad” microbes.
- Addressing specific nutrient deficiencies caused by medications, diet, gut health issues or other causes.
- Checking up with the primary care doctor to discuss medical conditions, medications, pathology testing and any concerns regarding fertility and pregnancy.
- Getting any necessary lab testing done to check on health and fertility markers, nutrient or toxin levels, and infection status.
- Checking up with the dentist. Dental x-rays and many procedures are not recommended during pregnancy. Pregnancy hormones can increase likelihood of some dental problems.
- At this time, couples may chose to look at their relationship and life choices that may affect or be affected by pregnancy and children.
The Build Up
This stage is all about providing the key ‘ingredients’ to make healthy eggs and sperm in their final stage of development. This stage involves:
- Both partners eating a nutrient dense, whole-foods diet.
- Supplementing with prenatal nutrients and appropriately prescribed herbal medicines to improve fertility, support a healthy epigenome of the egg and sperm (the messages in the genetic material being passed to baby) and healthy pregnancy.
- Partake in regular, sustainable exercise.
- Stress management, including relaxation habits.
- Continuing with practices to minimize exposure to toxins.
- Keep working on healthy relationships.
How long should preconception care last?
This really depends on the couple and their circumstances. When either or both partners have significant health issues or exposures, the Check Up & Clean Up stage might best be followed for 6-12 months. If both partners are healthy and already practice the guidelines in this first stage, they are probably right to go straight to the Build Up stage. If advancing age or time related fertility decline is a concern then a couple may also choose to go straight for the Build Up stage.
I usually recommend a Build Up stage of 3-4 months before planned conception. This ensures good nourishment during those important months of egg and sperm development.
Not Just Fertility
Steps towards healthy fertility and egg and sperm health are also valuable for overall health. Our bodies are connected. There is no looking after our ovaries or testes without also looking after our sleep, adrenals, thyroid, emotional health and metabolism. In the process, you learn practices that will help support a healthy pregnancy, and family. The benefits of preconception care go far beyond the fertility tune up.