Update: Since writing this article I have become aware of an area around pregnancy in women that needs to be addressed. Please find this update in italics further down the page.
I have had a few women ask me recently how I think they should best prepare for a healthy pregnancy. I have done a lot of writing around the importance of preparing for pregnancy, and how to eat before and and during pregnancy, but there are many other aspects I have not discussed in regards to preparing for a healthy and happy gestation period.
Before I proceed, I would like to state that I am not a doctor and I do not want to counter anything your doctor may recommend. Because of this, I suggest you work alongside your health practitioner if you decide to incorporate my recommendations. The information you will find in this article is based on teaching from recognised health practitioners, my own research, and from working with my clients. I hope you find it helpful.
Why should I prepare for pregnancy when other women don’t do this?
This is a great question. Of course many women become pregnant every year who have never put a thought into preparing well for developing a healthy foetus. Furthermore, more often than not, their babies are born “healthy” (we’ll come back to this later). Asides from all the reasons in this article, the reason I implore my clients to prepare for fertility and pregnancy is because of the following points:
1. A growing fetus requires tonnes of nutrients that it acquires from your body in order to develop well. This means that it will take what it needs before you are adequately sustained by your own dietary nutrients. This can often leave the mother depleted of important nutrients. For example, some women who don’t enhance vitamin D stores before they become pregnant lose all their vitamin D to their child during gestation. They are subsequently left with virtually no vitamin D after birth. This increases fatigue and in some cases can even promote post-natal depression. Furthermore, if during pregnancy there is not enough vitamin D for your baby because of an absence of stores, your baby can be born vitamin D deficient, which can have detrimental effects on foetal brain development.
2. This next point addresses the implication made further up about babies being born ‘healthy’ without preparation having occurred. It is important to understand that the health of an infant can not be completely documented immediately after birth, or even during childhood. Epigenetic research now shows that it is often the health of the child later on in life (around 50 – 60 years old) that is most effected by their time in gestation. A great example of this are babies who are born with a low birth weight. Although the infant may grow rapidly in that first year and catch up to their peers, research shows that low-birth weight has a strong correlation to adult-obesity and a difficulty regulating metabolism in adulthood. This is something you can not know directly after birth or even when the infant becomes a child. It is just another reason to fill up nutrient stores before conception and maintain a nutrient-dense diet during pregnancy.
In saying this, there is not yet enough research showing how/if infant diet and environment post-birth can alter epigenetic outcomes or not. Further more, it is important to understand that we live in an imperfect world, a toxic environment, and are immersed in a questionable food industry. This means that there are bound to be occasions during pregnancy when women consume food that they may believe is 'bad' for baby, or that science shows doesn't enhance healthy foetal development. In these times, it is important to remember that we can not get everything right, and that because we live in an imperfect world, we will eat these foods, perhaps at social situations or for a weekend treat, and there is no reason to feel guilt about this. I have noticed a trend in women particularly where they believe they need to eat 100% healthy 100% of the time. Research actually shows that those who enjoy food for food's sake and for social interactions often appear healthier in tests than those who consume a strict healthy diet. Food is to be enjoyed, to fill our memories with happy interactions, and to nourish the soul as well as the body. I for example have a lovely memory of making my mother's lasagna with her in her kitchen. I wont make this every week, but perhaps a few times a year (or more) I will make this (even while I am pregnant) for my family. We women need to stop holding ourselves up to perfection and get a bit more down to earth about how to live in this fallen world. As a great friend of mine recently reminded me, "it is about what we eat MOST of the time that counts, not what we eat SOME of the time."
For how long should I nutritionally prepare for pregnancy?
I tend to agree with Sally Fallon on this one. If you have been following a nutrient-dense diet for a number of years before you decide to become pregnant, then focussed preparation of 3 – 6 months should be sufficient. However, if you have been consuming a diet of processed foods, take-aways, sugar, high caffeine and alcohol in-take, then you may want to extend your preparation period to 2 years.
Why is this?
Your baby obtains nutrients, toxins, growth-hormones, and gut bacteria from your body. A poor diet leads to increased toxins from environmental factors (pesticides, plastic containers, cosmetic products, etc), inefficient gut bacteria, unregulated hormones, and a lack of nutrients. It can take a long time for your body to right itself for your own health before it is able to support the healthy development of a foetus.
I especially urge you to seek help to improve your gut health before becoming pregnant. There is a lot of research that explains how an infant inherits their mother’s gut bacteria. Gut health is crucial for overall health, and fortunately, through guidance from a health practitioner, you can improve your gut health immensely.
What should my alcohol/caffeine intake be like while preparing for pregnancy?
There is much research around alcohol intake during pregnancy, but little research around alcohol intake before pregnancy. During pregnancy, alcohol is known to increase the risk of low birth weight and reduce IQ. Caffeine is also known to increase the risk of low birth weight.
I personally suggest limiting alcohol and caffeine intake immensely while preparing for pregnancy in order to support your liver to function optimally to eliminate toxins so they do not come into contact with your foetus. This may mean slowly eliminating caffeine from your diet and keeping alcohol intake to 1 or 2 standard glasses weekly. Many people may believe this is an extreme view and it is up to the mother to decide what is best.
Furthermore, some men who consume alcohol regularly while preparing to become pregnant find that their sperm quality and motility is negatively effected. I know of couples who have struggled to become pregnant until the male eliminated alcohol from their diet, and viola! they fall pregnant.
What is the deal with environmental toxins?
Every day we are exposed to toxins through cosmetic products, plastic containers that consist of BPA, pesticides on our vegetables and fruits, commercial chemicals in our food, etc. These toxins are stored in our body fat and unfortunately decrease the efficiency of the liver. The foetus is at risk of coming into contact with these toxins, which can have numerous harmful effects.
The best way to eradicate potential toxins from entering the body is to switch cosmetics over to natural or organic products, avoid eating out of and storing food in plastic containers, purchase a BPA-free drink bottle, wash your vegetables well in vinegar and water to eliminate pesticides, and avoid food from packets. A great book to read to understand more about how toxins impact the foetus is 'The Better Baby Book' by Lana and Dave Asprey.
What should my lifestyle look like while preparing for pregnancy?
I was having a discussion about this with a colleague the other day and he presented an interesting point. He said that he was aware of many female clients who were struggling to become pregnant and that these women had extremely busy and stressful lives. He relayed that he had seen first hand that when women reduce the amount of commitments they have, spend more nights at home, stop filling up their weekends, do things more slowly, and essentially make “room” for a baby in their life, they often find that they fall pregnant sooner.
From a scientific point of view, when the body is stressed it prioritises the production of our stress hormones over the production of our sex hormones. What this means is that ovulation can become impaired in women who undergo stress of any kind; emotional, physical or environmental. Read more here.
Because of this, in the lead up to pregnancy I suggest having more down time, taking up gentle yoga, enjoying slow walks, becoming a bit more domestic, and choosing to do things that make you feel relaxed.
What should my diet look like while preparing to become pregnant?
Feed, nourish, value yourself.