The term ‘preconception care’ can be defined as optimising health prior to attempting conception in the hope that a couple will conceive easily and attain a healthy pregnancy and birth.
This idea has been part of a holistic approach to reproductive health for many years but has been gaining popularity in mainstream medical circles of late. By addressing a range of lifestyle issues in the preconception timeframe we not only can help couples conceive more easily but also help them have a healthy baby in the long term. It takes around 3-4 months for the egg and sperm to fully develop and mature, so it makes sense that changes need to be undertaken before planning conception.
There is greater need for preconception care today than ever before, given such things as inadequate diets, a polluted environment and our often stressful lifestyles. Moreover, as many as 50% of couples who conceive report an unplanned pregnancy. Thus the preconception period is crucial to reducing many of the risks of birth defects and premature birth. Nearly 85 percent of women receive early prenatal care, which can improve maternal and infant health. However, even early prenatal care may be too late to make a difference in some cases. Some interventions work best, and others only work, if they begin before pregnancy.
More and more research has shown the importance of key nutrients in preventing birth defects and pregnancy complications. Good nutrition is essential during the preconception period and beyond. Nutritional supplements are often required for certain nutrients which are often lacking in the modern diet and essential to the health of your developing baby. Folate is one essential nutrient that we have known can prevent a range of birth defects such as spina bifida if taken during preconception and early pregnancy. Recent research has found that taking folate before pregnancy also results in a 25% reduction in the risk of having a low birthweight infant. Babies who are small for gestational age have poorer outcomes in the short term and long term and until recently there was no known preventative strategies.
However, besides folate there are a host of other nutrients that are equally important to the health and development of the foetus that may be necessary to supplement with. These can include activated B vitamins, vitamin E, Vitamin C, iodine and omega 3 fatty acids. The best approach to preconception nutrition is to have a personalised consultation with a naturopath or nutritionist. This will provide you with a specific diet and supplement plan to suit your unique needs – taking into account your background health, age and other environmental or occupational factors that may enhance your need for certain nutrients.
Alcohol should also be avoided as it increases the risk of miscarriage & failure to thrive as well as lowering sperm count and quality. Alcohol also decreases absorption of B vitamins & increases the excretion of magnesium & zinc, all of which are essential for optimal fertility.
Smoking, drugs and alcohol are detrimental across the board – to fertility, pregnancy outcomes and infant health. While much of the focus on preconception care has been aimed at women, researchers are also becoming increasingly aware that a man’s health at the time of conception has an impact on the baby’s health. A child born to a male smoker is four times more likely to have cancer in childhood. Moderate alcohol intake of 1-5 drinks per week increases the risk of fertility problems and miscarriage in women and fertility problems and sperm DNA damage in men. Men working in occupations that have environmental risk factors such as exposure to chemicals, heavy metals or radiation need to receive additional support to detox these hazards and improve sperm quality.
As many as 40-50% of the adult population are considered overweight or obese. Overweight women have a 2-5 fold increase in fertility issues and higher miscarriage rates. Weight reduction by as little as 5-10% can improve pregnancy rates and outcomes. Overweight men also suffer lower fertility and erectile dysfunction.
Getting Expert Advice
Having a consultation as a couple with a naturopath specialising in fertility is a good idea. They can assess your diet and lifestyle and advise on any individual changes necessary and prescribe appropriate nutrients. If there are any underlying health issues for either partner relating to reproductive health such as poor sperm count or specific gynaecological conditions, a holistic approach may include herbal and nutritional remedies to improve chances of conception including couples on IVF. A collaborative approach can be very beneficial when both doctors and naturopaths can work together to achieve the best outcomes.
Getting support and inspiration to make healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle can have far reaching impacts on your fertility and general health, now and in the future!