Jessica Wei, MD
SO, YOU WANT TO HAVE A BABY!
So amazing to have the opportunity and desire to create a family with the one you love. Congratulations! This is the first step, to have the intention. I had the great privilege to be very intentionally pregnant twice, and give birth to two beautiful boys, who continue to be happy and healthy. And I will admit that if I knew what I know now, I likely would have prepared differently! No regrets though. Now I simply have a very directed purpose of sharing what I have learned since then to provide some beginning guidance on how women and men can prepare themselves, their bodies and minds, to co-create happy and healthy children.
As with every aspect of our body, there is an amazingly complex and innate intelligence to having a healthy baby. As an obstetrician, I observed thousands of times, how this process of conception, pregnancy, and birth resulted in a healthy baby. Mind-boggling really if we stop to think about it. What I also observed were the times when it didn’t go so well, and the very challenging and heart-breaking issues that parents sometimes faced as their child grew and developed: issues with digestion and growth; neurologic difficulties with vision, seizures, movement ; delayed emotional and intellectual development; issues with anxiety, depression, and ADHD at very young ages; and cancer. Very often, parents can feel powerless to help their children against seemingly bad luck in life. Yes, we are born with a particular genetic inheritance. Yet, what if we actually have the power to prevent our children from suffering and create a life for them which enables them to be healthy, balanced, happy, and strong? A deliberate and mindful co-creation of a good life for our children. That sounds pretty awesome to me!
WHY PREPARE TO CONCEIVE?
Have you heard about the concept of epigenetics? Most people understand that we inherit genetic information from both of our parents. What some may not understand is that there are many influences which determine whether that genetic information is actually expressed in an individual. This is the study of epigenetics.
So what actually influences gene expression? Diet and nutrition. Our environment and exposure/avoidance of exposure to toxins. Thoughts and emotions. When a baby is developing inside a mother’s womb, this is when epigenetic factors have the greatest impact. And these influences also continue to have impact throughout our lives.
What this means is that we have the power and ability to create the conditions which will lead to a healthy and balanced life for our children. The health issues that our children may struggle with are not inevitabilities which we then have to accept and face. There exists the possibility of a deliberate and mindful co-creation of a healthy and good life for our children. And the best time to prepare is before you get pregnant.
HOW TO PREPARE OPTIMALLY BEFORE GETTING PREGNANT
There are four main areas on which to focus:
- Nourishment and gut health support
- Appropriate supplementation
- Addressing stress and emotions
Because there is clearly so much to discuss with each of these topics, we’ll focus on certain foundational points with each of these. The key concept to understand and grasp is that we are aiming to create the best conditions for growth and development, rather than the circumstance of a shortage of resources and then an environment of survival and defense against threats and perceived threats.
NOURISHMENT AND GUT HEALTH SUPPORT
A good foundation food plan for conception is anti-inflammatory with four guidelines:
- Eat whole, fresh food as close to its natural form as possible;
- Eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits with as low a pesticide burden as possible (eat organic when you can, especially when buying the “Dirty Dozen” which include apples, potatoes, bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, grapes, pears, cherries, celery, and tomatoes according the Environmental Working Group, 2017);
- Eat lower glycemic-load carbohydrates to avoid blood sugar instability and insulin resistance to support hormonal balance;
- Ensure adequate omega 3 fatty acid intake through the consumption of wild salmon, sardines, omega-3 fortified eggs, and/or supplementation.
Focus on creating optimal gut health before conceiving and delivering, as the gut microbiome that you have during and pregnancy and birth will determine your baby’s inheritance of balanced or imbalanced gut bacteria. For some, eating pre- and probiotic foods may be enough along with a clean anti-inflammatory diet along with perhaps taking a probiotic supplementation. However, for others, exploring gut further with testing for gut infections and inflammation may be necessary to ensure the best gut environment for overall body balance including optimal sex hormonal health.
This is a huge topic so we’ll just hit some highlights. For both men and women, taking a multivitamin is recommended simply because most of us are not getting what we need from what we eat. Keep in mind that we want to be fully fortified BEFORE getting pregnant. The quality of egg and sperm depend on good nutrient support, and after fertilization, the earliest development of the fetus requires the optimal environment to send the proper signals for healthy development.
There is a bit of a myth about taking a “prenatal vitamin” as providing all that a woman needs before, during, and after pregnancy. From my experience as an obstetrician, many commercially-available prenatal vitamins sold actively to obstetricians do not actually provide good nutrient support or do not have the recommended forms of supplementation. A good prenatal vitamin is a good multivitamin. So, what basics should both men and women consider when preparing their bodies to have a baby?
- Vitamin A (important for baby’s developing vision and immune function): look for no more than 2,500 of “preformed” Vitamin A (palmitate, acetate, retinol palmitate). Foods sources of vitamin A are “provitamins” or carotenoids such as beta-carotene. Provitamins are safer because they are only converted to formed Vitamin A when needed. Vitamin A toxicity can affect brain and organ development. So, we need to be mindful of how we are supplementing with Vitamin A.
- Vitamin D (important for baby’s developing nervous system and cognition, possible prevention of autism; lowers the risk of gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia): the recommendation for supplementation should be based on testing of a 25-hydroxy Vitamin D level. An optimal level should be between 50 and 80 ng/mL. This may mean taking higher dose Vitamin D3 (for a short period of time to boost levels (5,000 to 10,000 IU daily) based on laboratory testing.
- Folate (essential for proper neural tube development, as well as overall development and growth): take an active form, either folinic acid or methyl-folate, 800 micrograms. Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate and is not easily converted to folate. Moreover, up to 60% of people may have a genetic variation in an enzyme called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) which may further reduce their ability to convert folic acid. So, taking folate or folinic acid is a better choice than folic acid.
- Iodine (key for thyroid function, breast and hormone health): 150 mcg needed/day. Food sources include egg yolks, sea vegetables such as seaweed and kelp, saltwater fish.
- Omega 3 fatty acids (DHA important for baby’s brain and visual development) at least 300-400 mg DHA/500-600 mg EPA.
Where to start with this topic? Along with nourishing your body properly, removing the toxins that are present is key for overall wellness and functioning, as well as preventing the passing along of those toxins to babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This is another area where we exert leverage over preventing illness in our children. In 2005, the Environmental Working Group published a study of the evaluation of the umbilical cord blood of ten babies born in 2004. Testing revealed the presence of a total of 287 different chemicals! They further wrote:
“Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.” (Source: Environmental Working Group analysis of tests of 10 umbilical cord blood samples) Some toxins to consider are heavy metals, such as mercury, aluminum, and arsenic; pesticides; chemicals found in plastics and other synthetic products.
So, eliminating as much of the body burden of toxins, as well as strengthening the body’s detoxification capacity (liver/kidney function) is vital for preventing future problems for our children. It should be noted that not all exposures will create problems for all children. Because we don’t yet understand which babies are more susceptible to exposures to toxins, it is better to reduce the risk by considering detoxification for both men and women prior to conception. We can reduce exposure through attention to the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the chemicals we put on our skin, and home and workplace exposures.
ADDRESSING EMOTIONS AND STRESS
Along with the initial careful consideration of whether or not to have a baby, a couple must take care to address their emotional health and levels of stress. Needless to say, deciding to have a baby is very serious decision, and while it is the happiest event in many people’s lives, it also poses its own set of stressors which most cannot really anticipate. Cultivating calm and relaxation prior to conceiving is foundationally important for creating the best conditions for optimal growth and development. Increased and ongoing stress during pregnancy (whatever the source) increases the release of the fight-or-flight hormones and neurotransmitters, cortisol and epinephrine/norepinephrine. As one can well imagine, this defense/survival-based milieu is not optimal for a growing baby to experience while in-utero. While a woman is pregnant, the stage for the innate wisdom and balance of that baby’s body and physiology begins to be set, and it is well within our control and power to ensure that a child receives the best advantage and instruction from the very beginning of life.
WE HAVE THE POWER!
So much to consider! And know that we all have the power and choice to co-create happy and healthy children when we mindfully consider the care of our bodies, minds, and spirit before getting pregnant. The impact is immense. We have the power to choose an optimal path for ourselves and our families, and this will lead to more ease and joy in our lives naturally.