By Quilla Watt, Integrative Naturopath
With every major event in life, you do a certain level of preparation and planning – whether it’s travelling, building a house, getting married, or choosing a career path. Similarly, conception and pregnancy require a certain level of preparation.
Many people understand the importance of good health during pregnancy. What may be less obvious is the importance of good health before pregnancy. This is where preconception care comes in.
Your preconception health is the sum of your general health, diet, lifestyle, and environment in the four months leading up to conception. By the time an egg is released at ovulation, it has gone through a maturation process of 100 days.
By the time a sperm meets that egg for fertilisation, the sperm has been through a maturation process of approximately 76 days. During this time both the egg and sperm are vulnerable to toxin exposure, nutritional deficiencies, and illness. The health of the sperm and egg at the time of fertilisation is a snapshot of the health of the couple over the past three to four months.
Preconception care is definitely a couples activity- the health of the male and his sperm is just as important as the health of the female and her egg. That is why I recommend a preconception period of four months, so that at the time of fertilisation, the healthiest egg meets the healthiest sperm for the best outcome.
Seven steps to good preconception care
1. Ensure good nutrition
I could go on forever about diet, but the essence of a good preconception diet is to eat a wide variety of whole, unprocessed foods.
Try to limit processed foods, fast foods and take away foods as much as possible. Choosing organic and local produce where possible is preferable to avoid pesticide residues. It is not always financially realistic to eat completely organic, but I recommend choosing organic and free range animal products, and to ensure you choose organic when eating any of the fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list, which singles out produce with the highest pesticide loads.
2. Achieve a healthy body weight
The preconception period is an excellent time to ensure you are at a healthy body weight. Being under or overweight can both contribute to difficulties with conception and pregnancy. Low body weight can affect hormone levels and ovulation.
It can also compromise the mother’s nutrient levels, and as a result, the nutrient levels of the baby. Obesity is certainly one of our biggest health problems, and poses a number of problems in pregnancy, including increased risk of miscarriage, pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, and stillbirth. Maternal obesity also increases the risk of the offspring being overweight in adulthood.
3. Regular exercise
Exercise is an important part of any phase of life, and the preconception period is no exception. Exercise can help achieve a healthy body weight and build fitness and muscle tone. However, high levels of exercise (such as marathon running) can be stressful on the body, and may be a risk for a decrease in fertility. It's just a matter of finding a balance.
4. Avoid smoking
Chemicals and metals in cigarette smoke interfere with the production of sex hormones in women, and has been associated with a decrease in ovarian function. In men, smoking has been associated with decreased total sperm count, density, motility, normal morphology, and semen volume, and increased sperm DNA damage.
5. Avoid alcohol
Alcohol is associated with decreased fertility in women. Alcohol inhibits ovulation, decreases hormone levels and affects egg quality. In men, alcohol increases the clearance of testosterone and increases the conversion of testosterone in oestrogen. Alcohol consumption has been linked with decreased libido, decreased sperm count, and poor morphology and motility.
6. Avoid caffeine
Several studies have shown caffeine to negatively affect fertility by increasing the time to pregnancy. The negative effects that are emphasized in recent research are miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, foetal death and still birth. The amount of caffeine appears to matter, with low to moderate doses of caffeine being less of a problem. However, during preconception, conception and pregnancy, I tend to err on the side of caution and recommend no caffeine intake, especially if you have a history of fertility problems.
7. Decrease stress
Stress can affect the reproductive systems of both men and women. In men, stress may result in low testosterone and decreased sperm production. In women, stress can inhibit the production of important hormones including LH, oestrogen and progesterone. Identifying and reducing stress, good self-care, and regular mindfulness practices are all great ways to decrease stress.
Approximately 10 to 15% of couples are impacted by infertility. More and more, we are realising the important role lifestyle factors play in infertility. By modifying our lifestyle, we can remove possible roadblocks to both conception, and general wellbeing.