Preconception Health 101 – Part 1: What to Avoid Before You Get Pregnant

June 11, 2020

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Did you know that many women of indigenous cultures like the Kikuyu tribe – the largest ethnic group in Kenya – traditionally begin a special diet six months prior to marriage to prepare for pregnancy? (1). Pretty smart when research shows that certain birth defects can be traced to nutritional deficiencies prior to conception (2). And, it’s not just the mother’s health that matters. Men are often the overlooked piece of the fertility puzzle, yet it stands to reason that preconception health is about both parents.

Preconception Nutrition

Gone are the days when it was thought that women held a more significant role in conception than men. Both men and women play a vital role in the process of becoming pregnant, as well as contributing to the long-term health of their child. We now know that without good nutrition and lifestyle management (including sleep, exercise, and stress management), for both men and women, the chances of becoming pregnant diminish.

Facts for Men:

  • Genes expressed from the father are directly responsible for the development of the placenta
  • Currently 5-10% of all infertility is stress related, making stress management an integral part of conception (3)
  • Average male sperm counts have dropped by almost 50%, the number of men with extremely low sperm counts tripled, and the number of men with high counts decreased (4)
  • Toxic exposure to endocrine disruptors is a very real and current issue affecting both female and male fertility health

So what are men and women who want to improve their health before conception supposed to do?

Below is an extensive list of things to do before pregnancy. After learning what to avoid, what to include and the core lifestyle areas that deserve your attention, please share this article with others you know who may be considering or planning to get pregnant.

Food to Avoid Before Pregnancy

Here is a list that includes some of the factors that could interfere with conception health. The foods and substances listed below are harmful to the body if eaten in excess (whether you want to get pregnant or not), therefore you should look to decrease your toxic load to improve your fertility, reproductive, and overall health. For specific guidance on the key nutrients to focus on before and during pregnancy, see The Bloom Guide to a Happy, Healthy Pregnancy and Beyond.

To improve fertility and your baby’s long-term health, avoid the following 3-6 months prior to thinking about having a baby:

Food First

Any foods that interfere with preconception health, decrease your nutrient reserves, and add to cellular damage and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is the result of this damage – causing an imbalance between free radicals (damage) and antioxidants reserves (healing/balance). This stress often manifests as inflammation:

  • Refined foods—white flour, white sugar, etc
  • Artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes, including; sucrose, sorbitol, aspartame, saccharin, etc
  • High glycemic foods
  • Processed foods and anything with artificial additives
  • Fried foods
  • Margarine (high in trans fatty acids)
  • Trans Fat – increases LDL cholesterol (damaging), decreases HDL cholesterol (protective), increases triglycerides, adds to inflammation
  • Refined vegetable oils

Other substances

Other substances that interfere with preconception health by decreasing your nutrient reserves and adding to cellular damage and inflammation are listed below. These substances should be avoided because they increase the amount of damage and imbalance to your body, therefore decreasing your reproductive health:

  • Alcohol
  • Intravenous and recreational drugs
  • Certain pharmaceuticals: check with your health care professional to ensure you’re not taking anything that could interfere with a fertile environment and put you and your partner’s conception health at risk
  • Tobacco

Environmental Toxins

Environmental toxins are everywhere and can affect reproductive health for generations. Thus, preconception is a perfect time to focus on limiting these exposures:

  • Heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and lead. Be sure you are drinking clean water using a high quality filtration system
  • Look at the contents of your make up and toiletries bag and switch to non-toxic, clean alternatives
  • Swap toxic cleaning and laundry products or anything with “fragrance,” including candles and air fresheners with non-toxic alternatives
  • Eat organic foods
  • Swap out plastics in your kitchen for glass, stainless steel, ceramic or silicone

Stress

When it comes to stress, a little is needed, but too much is not good (and most people have too much, not too little). So what’s the balance? Stress is a necessary part of your hormonal process, but left unmanaged and out of balance, it can lead to adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, insomnia, inflammation, anxiety, and poor fertility health. In fact, one study demonstrated that 34% of infertile women became pregnant after being trained in a relaxation technique. (5)

Endocrine Disruptors and How to Avoid Them

In the last 50 years alone, an estimated 5 million new chemicals have been created, 75,000 of which are in daily use and under 10% of which have been toxicity tested. An endocrine (hormone) disruptor is any substance that alters the function and causes imbalance or damage to any of your endocrine organs.

Here are 4 to avoid:

  • Bisphenol-A: BPA has been linked to everything from breast and others cancers to reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty and heart disease. According to government tests, 93% of Americans have BPA in their bodies (6). BPA is found in cash register receipts, most canned foods, and plastics.
  • Dioxins: recent research has shown that exposure to low levels of dioxin in the womb and early in life can both permanently affect sperm quality and lower the sperm count in men during their prime reproductive years (6). Mostly animal products contain this chemical. Choose organic as much as possible.
  • Phthalates: studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities (6). Use glass or stainless steel as much as possible and avoid personal care products that contain phthalates as an ingredient.
  • Organophosphate pesticides: organophosphates can interfere with the way testosterone communicates with cells. They can lower testosterone and alter thyroid hormone levels (6). Despite extensive studies linking exposure to effects on brain development, behaviour and fertility, organophosphates are still among the most common pesticides in use today. Try to buy organic produce when possible. Check the Environmental Working Group website for the most up to date list of produce that contains the highest levels of pesticide residue.

In addition to these specific recommendations, be sure to eat a rainbow of foods daily. A rainbow of food daily is your health insurance for all oxidative stress that occurs in your body. See here for more details. These colours (red/blue/purple/orange/yellow/green/white/tan) ensure that your body replenishes its antioxidant reserves, protecting your body from further damage and contain phytonutrients that help with detoxification of endocrine disruptors, such as BPA.

3 Heavy Metals You Should Avoid Before Pregnancy

  1. Lead – is harmful to almost every organ system in the body and has been linked to an astounding amount of health effects, such as; permanent brain damage, lowered IQ, hearing loss, miscarriage, premature birth, increased blood pressure, kidney damage and nervous system problems. Lead may affect your body by disrupting your hormones and in animals was found to lower sex hormone levels (6). Top tips: eat healthy foods daily and carefully remove old paint when repainting.
  2. Arsenic – messes with your hormones. Specifically, it can interfere with normal hormone functioning in the system that regulates how our bodies process sugars and carbohydrates. Disrupting this specific system has been linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immune suppression, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, growth retardation and high blood pressure (6). Top tip: find a water filter that is certified to remove arsenic.
  3. Mercury – is also linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immune suppression, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, growth retardation and high blood pressure. Pregnant women are the most at risk from the toxic effects of mercury, since the metal is known to concentrate in the foetal brain and can interfere with brain development (6). Top tips: choose wild salmon, wild trout and wild fish, the smaller in size the better. Avoid predatory fish like shark and swordfish and limit tuna.

A Healthy Life Starts With Preconception Nutrition

In summary, you can reduce your exposure to toxins by eating a rainbow of foods daily and following the guidelines above. See the Bloom Guide for a Happy, Healthy Pregnancy and Beyond, which will take you through the key nutrients to focus on before and during pregnancy.

Next week will continue with part 2 of this series, which will highlight what foods to include for healthy nutrition before (and during) pregnancy.

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – Nelson Mandela

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REFERENCES:

Photography by Joanna Maclennan: https://joannamaclennan.com

(1) Schmid, R, Traditional Foods Are your Best Medicine, Rochester, VT, Healing Arts Press; 1997

(2) Whitney, T., Taking Charge of Your Fertility, New York, NY, Harper Collins Publishers; 1995

(3) Rosenthal, M., The Fertility Sourcebook, Lincolnwood, IL, Lowell House, 1998

(4) Colborn, T., Dumanosky, D., & Meyers, J., Our Stolen Future, New York, NY, Penguin; 1996

(5): Pizzorno, J., Total Wellness, Rocklin, CA Prima Publishing; 1998

(6) Dirty List of Endocrine Disruptors, 12 Hormone Altering Chemicals and How to Avoid Them, Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/research/dirty-dozen-list-endocrine-disruptors, June 11, 2020

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