[ Note: This is the 3rd in my Health & Fertility series of articles. Please read #1 and #2 first! ]
I’ve always been someone who likes to be prepared. I don’t really like surprises…
(…unless I’ve hinted sufficiently about a gift to my groom, then I like his surprises)
I think it’s safe to say I’ve always been this way. When I suddenly decided that it was time to have a baby I literally walked into one bookstore bought 8-10 pregnancy books (handed these to my husband) then I walked into another bookstore and bought an additional 4-5 pregnancy and parenting books. Unsatisfied with the limited content I gathered research and literature and this is exactly how Well Adjusted Babies took flight. Imagine if you will then 2-3 months of me painfully fine-tuning everything Simon and I ate, drank, sprayed and washed with.
I had a strong need to discover what was required to boost my body in preparation for pregnancy and to appreciate how my body would embrace the intriguing forty-week process. Having now had 5 pregnancies and births its safe to say that Mother-Nature has taught me more then any book and she has also helped me to soften my previous control-freak manner.
Prior to every pregnancy I believe we serve ourselves (and our babies) well to take time to prepare physically, emotionally and mentally. When we transition from a distinct career focus to parenting, or when we move from nurturing one infant to two or three, there is significant change required. There will always be surprises and yet there is much we can do to foster our confidence in our body’s capacity to carry life and to birth our children. There are many rituals we can put in place that allow us to strengthen all aspects of our health and remain chipper and buoyant amidst the change.
10 POINTS TO BEAR IN MIND
It is wonderful for a couple to allow 3–4 months to focus on strengthening their health prior to conceiving. Parental health prior to conception is one of the many factors to influence a successful reproductive outcome. Here are some of my top tips…
1) Are you a Weekday Worrier and Weekend Warrior?
Please consider if your workday week is driven by your adrenal glands (glands that respond to stress) – do you exercise hard, skip meals, work long hours and hold everything together with coffee? On the weekend do you drink alcohol to unwind, smoke a little or take a few party drugs just to fully relax? One report stated that men with sperm counts less than 20 million/ml were two times more likely to have used cocaine within the past two years than men who had not used cocaine.1 With a little self-reflection some couples may realize the health scales are a little more out of balance then they first thought. Lifestyle habits like this take a serious toll on our health and unfortunately create havoc with how our body regulates reproductive function. Please see 7 Modifiable Lifestyle Factors Which May Influence Fertility for information relating to alcohol, smoking, caffeine etc.
2) Find Out Where You Are Starting
It is important to remember that how we live determines how healthy we are. Most of us realise that good health is not just delivered to us on a platter, and we acknowledge that we have to work consistently at achieving real vitality and fitness. Sometimes however we judge our health on how we appear visually and how we feel. Appearances are deceiving, we can be thin but dig a little deeper and our body is toxic and weak. We can ‘feel fine’ but be on the brink of a major health crisis. It is important to appreciate that our health cannot be determined by how we look or how we feel.
Symptoms are important signs from our body that we would do well to acknowledge and address – rather then merely covering up. Some people may perceive symptoms as a sign of weakness, when in fact symptoms are useful indications of how our body is adapting to lifestyle stressors. Symptoms are neither good nor bad they simply indicate change is needed.
Regardless of whether you have symptoms or not there are many holistic health practitioners who can help you determine where you are starting with your health. It is vitally important to know how well your body is truly functioning. The nervous system for example is the body’s computer and governs hormonal balance and reproductive function and chiropractic adjustments support the body’s capacity to self-regulate which is imperative for conception. Physical traumas such as motor vehicle accidents, sporting injuries, falls and poor posture can all impact the function of the nervous system, as can chemical toxins and emotional stress.
Chinese Medicine practitioners, homeopaths and naturopaths, may also be able to determine if particular organs are deficient or working harder then they need to be or whether your body needs assistance to replenish lost nutrients.
These practitioners offer a wealth of skill and wisdom when it is comes to being proactive about gaining better health.
3) Preconception Detoxification
Importantly, when we are spending money on high quality foods and vitamin supplements it is imperative that we have good digestive health. To be able to properly digest foods and assimilate nutrients we need to have strong digestive health. Detox programs help to remove toxins and bad bacteria that have built up through dietary and lifestyle habits helping to renew digestive lining and healthy bacteria, which can help to rapidly improve health. Consider how long it has been since you last did a detox? There are many varied detox programs available and your health practitioner can guide you on these.
Please see 7 Modifiable Lifestyle Factors Which May Influence Fertility for information relating to the impact of exposure to toxins that we place on our skin, ingest and breathe. In addition to detoxifying our home we start to dry skin brush, have lymphatic massage and prioritise getting a water filter.
As skin is the major organ of elimination and dead skin cells often accumulate preventing the skin being able to remove toxins effectively dry skin brushing makes a lot of sense. Before your shower or bath spend 5 minutes firmly brushing your legs, arms and back with a loofa – it will be uncomfortable the first few times and your skin will turn pink and tingle. Use long sweeping strokes towards the heart and after showering follow with a natural, chemical-free moisturiser or a naturally moisturising oil such as jojoba or coconut.Lymphatic massage is also a great way to accelerate detoxification helping to cleanse the lymphatic system.
One of the easiest things we can do to help our bodies detoxify is drink plenty of water. The problem is we need to make sure that water is not another source of toxins; our drinking water needs to be pure and clean. Whether from a tap, a tank or a natural source, water contains hundreds of contaminants, including natural organics, salts, harmful bacteria and viruses. Chlorination of tap water reduces the risk of infection considerably, but at the same time this process forms by-products, which are potentially harmful. Fertility Challenges (Chapter 2 of Well Adjusted Babies) outlines further why we should prioritise purchasing a water filter.
At all times not just during a detox it is also important to avoid contaminated fish products. There has been increasing awareness about the ill effects of toxins found in fish, including mercury, colourings and pesticides.2 Tinned fish is also a source of Bisphenol A, sulphur dioxide and EDTA.3 For a full list of safe fish and FDA recommendations, please see Fish — How Safe Is It?
4) Consider the Impact of pill and any micro nutrition deficiencies
While I am a big fan of sourcing nutrition through Real Foods there are certain times I believe we need to also address micro-deficiencies through herbs and vitamin supplements. Micro-nutritional deficiencies can result from many things including stress, smoking, other toxins, poor diet, some prescriptive medications and the contraceptive pill.
The pill is an effective and very popular oral contraceptive method. However, the pill may also affect fertility in one of two ways: Firstly altering the body’s ability to uptake and utilise a number of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C, E, K, folic acid and biotin. Minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, selenium, zinc and copper are also affected.4
Secondly the pill confuses the body’s hormone levels. In effect, the pill prevents pregnancy by preventing ovulation. It causes the cervical mucus to thicken, which prevents or slows sperm entry, and thins the lining (endometrium) of the uterus. In doing so, it changes the body’s chemistry to release excessive oestrogen and progesterone, which in turn prevents ovulation. When women stay on the pill for extended periods of time, the body’s ability to naturally regulate hormone levels may be jeopardised.
Through the use of naturopathic herbs or Chinese herbs, naturopaths and Chinese Medicine practitioners can help to replenish vital nutrients needed for good reproductive function and to renourish the body. They can also guide you on which supplements support the body in preparation for conception.
5) Learn about your fertility window
When desiring to conceive it is imperative that a woman track and monitor her menstrual cycle and hence her ‘fertility window’. Yes it’s a bit icky but it’s important to get to know your body. The Sympto-Thermal Method (STM) has been proven to be very effective and combines both the Billings method (cervical mucus checking) and Basal Body Temperature (BBT) method.
Cervical mucus checking: One of the best established markers of ovulation is the change in vaginal discharge. Five to six days prior to ovulation, mucus will change from being paste-like and opaque to an oestrogenic mucus, which is thin, wet, watery, clear and profuse. Two days before ovulation, mucus will again change to a jelly-like mass (like raw egg-white), which can stretch in long strands. These few days have the highest conception probability.
Basal Body Temperature: Involves taking your body temperature each morning at the same time using a digital thermometer. Measuring changes in temperature help indicate when ovulation occurs. I recommend researching these methods for a full explanation on necessary steps.
6) Balanced Exercise and Ideal Weight
In the post 7 Modifiable Lifestyle Factors Which May Influence Fertility I outline the detrimental effect being underweight or overweight have on fertility. Moderate exercise also helps us maintain our ideal weight and keeps our bodies strong. Exercise improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin and smoothes out the blood sugar levels. Controlling insulin is an essential step in improving fertility.
There are four types of regular activity are required for optimizing health: aerobic exercise, strength training, stretching as well as the activities of daily living. By combining these they will help control weight, high blood sugar and insulin. For most of us this means getting at least 30 minutes of varied exercise daily.
7) Go Organic
The simple act of biting into a piece of fruit that has been treated with endosulfan, an organochloride pesticide, gives an unintended dose of hormone disruptors, otherwise known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These EDCs mimic oestrogen and other hormones and potentially disrupt the chain of hormone release necessary for ovulation, fertilisation, and implantation of the embryo.5
Many of these chemicals remain in our body, and for pregnant women, they leach across the placental barrier and drain into the breast milk. It is now estimated that babies are born pre-polluted with as many as 300 industrial chemicals in their bodies when they enter the world. 6This is one reason an organic diet (even partial) is so imperative.
8) Regulate your Blood Sugar with a Well Planned Diet
Dietary factors that affect the body’s insulin (blood sugar) sensitivity have been associated with an increased risk of infertility. In the post 7 Modifiable Lifestyle Habits Which May Influence Fertility we discussed the relevance of insulin, outlining that the more insulin in the blood stream appears to depress the body’s production and regulation of hormones, which can have unwanted effects on fertility.
The two obvious culprits for affecting insulin are sugar (in its many guises) and refined carbohydrates, while a lesser-known influence may come from low-fat dairy products.
Avoid Refined Carbohydrates: Research from the Nurses’ Health Study 7 showed that carbohydrate choices influence fertility. Eating a lot of easily digested carbohydrates such as white bread and potatoes increases the odds that you’ll find yourself struggling with ovulatory infertility. More than any other nutrient, carbohydrates determine your blood sugar and insulin levels. When these rise too high, they disrupt the finely tuned balance of hormones required for reproduction and this can result in ovulatory dysfunction. Women in the highest glycemic load category were 92% more likely to have ovulatory infertility than women in the lowest category.
Avoid Low Fat Foods: In recent studies8, the intake of low-fat dairy foods was associated with an 11% greater risk of infertility when compared high-fat dairy items. Whole milk and other high-fat dairy products have a higher oestrogen concentration, which authors suggest may help the body to regulate hormones and improve ovulation. A secondary concern is that low-fat dairy products contain a higher level of unchecked male hormones, which may create further hormonal stress.
Avoid Trans Fats: The most harmful fats you can put into your body, pregnant or not, are trans unsaturated fats. Trans fats (TFAs) impede insulin and its capacity to bind with cells, leaving unbound insulin to circulate longer in the blood stream.9 The result is a quick return to hunger and more eating.
TFAs also encourage fatty body tissue to synthesise small amounts of testosterone, prostaglandin and other related hormones, increasing the risk of ovulatory infertility. Be vigilant in avoiding trans fats; these are often listed on products as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening. Foods that contain TFAs include kids’ favourites, such as hot chips or French fries, crackers, cookies, biscuits, crisps, cakes, cereals and margarines.
Avoid Soy Products: While soy is a source of many important nutrients, we do not know if soy is the ‘health food’ it was once headlined to be—and we certainly do not know if soy boosts or impedes fertility. According to a study involving humans, soy may in fact impair sperm as they swim toward the egg. Even tiny doses of the compound in the female tract could destroy sperm and decrease fertility.10
9) Go the Good Fats
Some fats are good for us and some are not. Fats are important for optimum body function and together with protein they constitute the structural framework of our body. Fats help to make and repair the cells of the body, transport vitamins, and manufacture hormones critical for reproduction.
There are basically four types of fats, of which we need three. Our bodies thrive on ‘good fats’ – the mono and polyunsaturated fats – which are important for healthy reproduction as they improve insulin sensitivity (help control blood sugar levels), cool the body’s inflammation, and enhance healthy ovulation. Our bodies also use high quality saturated fats in moderation. The fourth fat, trans fat, is the ‘resident evil.’
Prioritise ‘good fats’ in your diet. Include a high quality, preferably organic, mercury-free DHA and EPA supplement (omega-3 polyunsaturated marine or fish oil), and utilise other great sources such as oily cold-water fish, flaxseed oil, walnut, olive and soya bean oil, walnuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, wheat germ, green leafy vegetables, olives and avocados.
10) Monitoring Thoughts and Minimise Stress
Stress affects many aspects of bodily function, including the adrenal glands, digestion, absorption of nutrients, immune function and hormonal balance.Research in the field of epigenetics (the study of the impact of dietary and environmental toxins on foetal development) clearly demonstrates that developing babies are impacted by the emotional status of the mother.11
Stress in the male can affect sperm production, and for women it can delay or prevent ovulation, and create menstrual irregularity and chemical alterations in vaginal secretions.12
Most of us were never taught how to handle stress, yet it is vitally important to learn how to meditate, to have some life coaching or proactive counseling, and learn how to release stress and create rituals that encourage relaxation. It is vitally important to prepare emotionally for this chapter of your life and realize the impact our thoughts have on our body and when we are pregnant our developing baby.
Research has shown that exposure to emotional, dietary and environmental toxins and stresses at vulnerable periods of a baby’s development can be linked to pathology that develops later in life. Chronic stress in pregnancy can sculpt the foetal brain, and lead to impulsive children that quick to react, and are less likely to be calm and content.13
You may also wish to take a look at some of my favourite authors that always help me to keep my thoughts focused on the good things in my life and have helped me prepare for parenting…
- Dr John Demartini (any of his books but Count Your Blessings is a great start),
- Simon Parke (The Beautiful Life),
- Stephanie Dowrick (Choosing Happiness),
- Sarah Napthali (Buddhism For Mothers) and
- Robin Grille (Parenting For Peaceful World).
Other Resources Include:
- Listen to my interview on fertility with The Wellness Guys
- Refer to “Fertility Challenges” for more information.
. . . . .
Dr Jennifer Barham-Floreani
. . . . .
2,National Toxicology Program. (2008) Brief on Bisphenol A. [Online]. Access: https://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/chemicals/bisphenol/BPADraftBriefVF_04_14_08.pdf .
3 Carstens, J. How Safe is Fish? Cited in: McGuire, M. Clean Food Organic. Volume 2. Australia: Custom Publishing; 2006.4 Stanford, Joseph. National Children’s Study Workshop Expanding Methodologies for Capturing Day-Specific Probabilities of Conception. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; May 17–18, 2004.
5 Sikka, S.C., Wang, R. Endocrine Disruptors and Estrogenic Effects on Male
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6 Environmental Working Group. (2008) Study Shows Infants Exposed to Reproductive Toxins from Shampoo, Lotion and Powder. [Online]. Available: https://www.ewg.org/node/25964 . 7 Colombo O. et al Dietary intakes in infertile women a pilot study Nutrition Journal 2009, 8:53
Chavarro, J.E., Rich-Edwards, J.W., Rosner, B.A., Willett, W.C. Dietary Fatty Acid Intakes and the Risk of Ovulatory Infertility. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 2007; 85; pp 231-237.8 Chavarro, J.E., Rich-Edwards, J.W., Rosner, B.A., Willett, W.C. A Prospective
Study of Dairy Foods Intake and Anovulatory Infertility. Human Reproduction; 2007, pp. 1–8. Advance Access published February 28, 2007 doi:10.1093/humrep/dem019
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11 Homan G, et al. The impact of lifestyle factors on reproductive performance in the general population and those undergoing fertility treatment: a review. Hum Reprod Update 2007;13(3):209-233.
12 Y Li, H Lin, J Cao. Association between socio-psycho-behavioral factors and male semen quality: systematic review and meta-analyses Fertil Steril. 2010 Jul 30. [Epub ahead of print]13 Lipton, HB. The Biology of Belief- Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Hay House Inc. 2005