Fill the nutrition gap
The Nutrition gap is the difference between optimum nutrient intake and the actual quantity of nutrients that we consume. During pregnancy and breastfeeding the mother will provide nutrients to the child at the expense of her own health. This can have long-term effects on the mother’s health, particularly if she has subsequent pregnancies within a short space of time. There is never a more important time to address this gap than when thinking about conceiving a child.
The importance of folate intake during pregnancy has long been understood, particularly for the prevention of neural tube defects. Many mothers will begin taking folate once they discover that they are pregnant. However, the most important time for adequate folate levels is actually at the point of conception, this is also the case for vitamin D. Ensuring optimum nutrient status before pregnancy is much more beneficial to the mother and child.
Below is a summary of nutrients of particular relevance for preconception, fertility and pregnancy:
Folic acid (methylfolate) – is a methyl donor and a growth promoter and reduces the risk of neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida. Research shows the benefit of folic acid supplementation beyond the previously advised twelve weeks, with recommendation to be taken preconception and throughout pregnancy @ 400ug/day. (We recommend methylfolate and not folic acid for supplements).
B Complex Vitamins – necessary for the production of DNA and RNA. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are important for genetic coding and improving sperm count in men. Vitamin B6 is believed to increase fertility in women.
Beta Carotene (for vitamin A) – antioxidant protection for sperm and egg DNA. ( beta carotene is recommended as the safe precursor to vitamin A in supplements.)
Vitamin C – a range of antioxidant benefits; also protective of sperm and internal DNA damage, and enhancing sperm quality.
Vitamin D – is important during pregnancy to help build the bones of the growing baby. It is also a vitamin needed for the health of all organs and tissue. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised by the government to take a vitamin D supplement. (vitamin ‘D3’ and not D2 as this is the most bioeffective form of Vitamin D and is now available from a vegan source.)
Vitamin E – for antioxidant support and important for fertility for both sexes.
Zinc – an essential component of genetic material. Zinc deficiencies are linked to chromosome changes in male and female, reduced fertility and increased risk of miscarriage due to the impact on reproductive hormones. High concentrations of zinc are found in sperm, thus an essential mineral for healthy sperm and numbers.
Selenium – an antioxidant, essential to maintain chromosome integrity and important in miscarriage prevention and birth defects; also essential for sperm formation and numbers.
Omega 3 – an ‘essential fatty acid’ important for preconception in men and women, and during pregnancy for the developing baby. The anti-inflammatory support of omega 3 is particularly relevant for sustaining a full-term pregnancy. Semen is rich in prostaglandins, hence the importance of essential fatty acid supplementation for quality, motility and sperm numbers. Omega 3 is important for the health of every cell in the body, particularly for eye and brain health in the developing foetus.
It is recommended to begin a preconception care programme at least 3 (preferably 6-12) months before planning to conceive. If you have this time prior to pregnancy it is a good idea to consider a detoxification program.
The modern world exposes us to a myriad of environmental toxins, including pesticides and fertilisers, chemicals from plastics, pollutants, smoking, alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs, heavy metals and chemicals such as parabens and SLS found in many personal hygiene products. All of these toxins (and more) can accumulate in the body and be stored for years in our adipose tissue. They then have to be processed by the liver, which is also responsible for detoxifying our own natural hormones, particularly oestrogen. If the liver is under strain from detoxifying external toxins it can have a detrimental effect on hormone balance, and consequently fertility. Exposure of the foetus to toxins has also been shown to trigger epigenetic changes, which may not manifest until years later.
Carrying out a detoxification or 4R program prior to conception will boost fertility and support a healthy foetus, and it can also help to prevent unpleasant symptoms during pregnancy such as morning sickness. However, once detoxification begins, stored toxins are liberated into circulation and it is important not to conceive at this point. Pregnancy ideally should be prevented until the detoxification programme is complete.
If unable to undergo a “detox” or are already pregnant it is still helpful to minimise exposure to toxins and gently support detoxification. This can be done by;
- Choosing organic, paraben and SLS free personal hygiene products
- Avoiding alcohol and smoking
- Choosing organic produce
- Avoiding plastic food and drink containers, particularly soft plastics and also avoid microwaving them.
- Have a good intake of antioxidants such as zinc, selenium, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, flavonoids and polyphenols – these will help quench any free radicals
- Increase consumption of cruciferous and brassica vegetables, as well as onions, garlic and leeks to support phase 2 liver detoxification. These foods provide sulphur for sulphation pathways and support healthy oestrogen clearance.
- Ensuring healthy bowel motility to prevent reabsorption of toxins and hormones in the digestive tract.
Stress during pregnancy has been shown to increase the risk of emotional disorders in children such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression, as well as schizophrenia in adulthood; it also increases the mother’s risk of postnatal depression. As stress and anxiety can increase during pregnancy due to apprehension and potential health concerns, it is important to begin to manage stress before conception, so, when the additional stresses of pregnancy come along, we are better equipped to cope with them. Stress can also reduce fertility.
Some stress relieving strategies are:
- Take a walk outside – studies have shown this reduces cortisol levels
- Try mindful meditation – many apps are available to help you with this
- Get adequate sleep.
- Obtain sufficient magnesium. Known as nature’s tranquiliser, magnesium has a calming effect and supports normal nervous system function. Consume dark leafy green vegetables and consider a supplement (100-200mg/day elemental magnesium). You can also try a bath with 2 handfuls of Epsom salts, which are high in magnesium sulphate and can be absorbed through the skin to aid sleep and relaxation.
- Support normal nervous system function with Vitamin C, B5 and B6.
- Replace caffeine with calming teas such as valerian and chamomile, liquorice has also been shown to support the adrenal glands.
Look after your Digestive System
A good detoxification or 4R programme will also support the health of the gut. This is so important for optimal health throughout pregnancy. Many studies have identified a link between healthy gut flora in the mother and the health of the baby. Healthy maternal gut flora has been linked to reduced inflammation, asthma, eczema and coeliac disease risk, as well as improved immune function. The main reason for this is that during a natural birth the child will pass through the birth canal and pick up flora from the mother. As it does so the bacteria will inoculate the child’s sterile gut. This flora will also be passed onto the child through colostrum during the first breastfeed.
The gut flora can be improved during pregnancy by taking a probiotic; however, it is more beneficial to ensure that the gut is supported before conception. Performing a 4R program will really help to achieve a healthy gut flora as well as improving natural hormone balance and enhancing fertility.
Here are some ways that can improve gut health without carrying out a full 4R programme:
- Consume lemon in hot water first thing in the morning – to stimulate bile production
- Maintain adequate zinc levels – zinc is very important for the production of stomach acid as well as for maintenance of the epithelial tissue and hence the lining of the digestive system.
- Consume prebiotic foods such as baked apples, chicory, artichoke and root vegetables
- Consume fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi to support gut flora
- Take a multi-strain probiotic
- Consider a digestive enzyme to improve nutrient absorption, if this is impaired.
Lifestyle – Sunlight is needed to stimulate the pituitary gland – the master hormone gland. Make sure you have some fresh air & daylight! Above all, don’t rush…. It is surprising how much infertility is due to stress & a rushed way of life… try to slow down & relax.