Site editor’s note. This guest article by naturopath Loula George discusses preconception care (also known as preconceptual care) as a way of improving parents’ health prior to pregnancy with the aim of having an enjoyable pregnancy and a healthy baby.
By Loula George, ND, Dip Med Herb
Most couples quite happily spend months and thousands of dollars preparing for the wedding that marks the beginning of their married life. Yet few prepare for the conception that marks the beginning of their child’s life with the same loving detail even though conceiving a child is one of the most significant events in any of our lives. For the child who is conceived, the events surrounding his or her conception can affect his or her health for a lifetime – for better, or for worse.
It is only after conception that most couples consider committing themselves to some sort of health programme to prepare for birth. Most never question the obvious omission of a programme for preconception care. If there are difficulties conceiving, there is a good chance that the problem is as simple to overcome as taking the time (at least four months) and effort to ensure that both prospective parents are in excellent health; free of hidden infections, toxic (heavy) metals, environmental hazards and excessive stress and that they are only eating healthy, preferably organic foods. Between that and learning the optimal timing for conception, the chances of producing a healthy baby can be dramatically increased.
It takes 100 days for an egg follicle to mature and up to 116 days for sperm to be produced. If during that time there are infections, nutritional deficiencies, toxins or other contaminants in the body, the chances of producing healthy eggs and sperm – and therefore a healthy foetus, is greatly reduced. Simply put, healthy bodies have a better chance of making healthy babies. Since it takes up to four months to produce the eggs and sperm that are going to make a baby, the couple’s health needs to be maximized at least four months before conception in order to maximize the chances of having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.
The first step is to actually avoid pregnancy using natural forms of birth control for at least four months while both parents focus on bringing their own health into optimal condition. This can often be hard for couples who have been solely focused on conceiving, sometimes for years. However, allowing the couple to ‘have a break’ can also be a relief for them as they focus on their own health. It is also essential for women who have been on hormonal birth control to give their body a chance to remove any synthetic hormones from their systems and allow their cycles to regulate again.
Environmental hazards such as smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and chemicals such as pesticides or solvents etc, are identified, both in the home and work environment and eliminated. This has to be corrected before conception.
Screening for heavy metals
An important part of a preconceptual care programme is screening for essential trace elements and levels of toxic heavy metals (such as lead) in the system using hair or urine analyses, in which a sample of hair or urine is sent to a laboratory so it can be analysed using a mass spectrometer. If low levels of trace minerals are detected, appropriate supplements may be prescribed to improve nutritional status.
Toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and aluminium displace minerals that are essential for the formation of
healthy eggs and sperm and can have severe effects on the developing foetus. These toxic metals can be found all around us, although we are often unaware of them. Many people still have aluminium cookware – or if they do not have it in their own kitchen, it may be used in the kitchen of their local cafe or restaurant. The use of aluminum cookware should be avoided, because of the aluminium compounds it leaches into the food can have detrimental effects on general health and fertility – but because of the association between aluminium toxicity and Alzheimer’s disease.
For those who have mercury-amalgam dental fillings these may a significant source of mercury exposure. Eating mercury contaminated fish is another common source of mercury exposure.
Lead can easily be inhaled while removing paintwork in the renovation of old houses. (This is unfortunately a common pastime, it seems, of couples prior to or while pregnant – and one that can be highly detrimental to the developing baby). In New Zealand, homes built before 1980 may be painted with lead-based paint. Removal of this paint needs to be done carefully to reduce the health risks involved and should not be done during the pre-conception period or during pregnancy. The Ministry of Health, OSH and Department of Labour have produced a book that details how to do this. See: http://www.healthed.govt.nz/resources/guidelinesforthemanagementoflead-b.aspx
Toxic metals can be found in contaminated water, sometimes right out of our kitchen tap. Water testing may be advisable. Couples who live in areas where the public water supply is fluoridated should invest in a reverse osmosis water filter or distiller or by safe (low nitrate) spring water as fluoride can have adverse effects on health and fertility. See: http://www.fluoridealert.org/health/repro/
Appropriate Medical Tests
Some people who have had difficulty conceiving may benefit by being referred to medical doctors who can check hormone levels and order appropriate tests to detect any hidden genito-urinary infections. Over 50% of women with infertility or miscarriage problems have been found by the Foresight Clinic (1) to have hidden infections and approximately 20% of men have them, often with no symptoms e.g. mycoplasma and ureaplasma bacteria. It is also important to screen for any other immunological factors that may cause implantation failure or miscarriage e.g antinuclear antibodies and cardiolipin antibodies. Dr Alan Beer (2) claims that 85% of unexplained infertility is caused by immunological factors. Other possible screening tests are for blood clotting disorders that can interfere with good blood supply to either the implantation site or the developing embryo.
Having identified and eliminated excessive toxins, environmental hazards, hidden infections, allergies and any other immune imbalances, the next step is to ensure that both parents have all the necessary vitamins and minerals that make up the building blocks of a healthy embryo by eating a safer, healthier diet and by taking supplements as necessary.
It is recommended that any reproductive health and any general health issues for both prospective parents are dealt with e.g endometriosis, PCOS, fibroids, asthma, autoimmune diseases, sperm problems. These can be treated using natural treatments e.g herbal medicine, diet changes, acupuncture. Since fertility and foetal health are directly related to general and reproductive health, these can be expected to improve significantly while progressing through the programme. Remember, a healthy body is a fertile body!
It is also important to address any stress that prospective parents are under. Stress not only affects sexual performance, but fertility, conception and all other aspects of reproduction. As well as physical hindrances to conception there can also be real psychological blocks. . Expert help can sometimes be needed to unravel and alleviate these, and some couples may benefit from therapies such as counseling, hypnotherapy and BodyTalk.
For patients whose fertility problems are not amenable to natural therapy (such as severely blocked tubes), the preconception care programme can support them prior to and during IVF/ICSI or any other assisted reproductive procedures.
They have the option of choosing an IVF Support programme with a view to improving overall health, increasing the possibility of success and decreasing the health risks involved. A recent study(3) in the UK showed IVF success rates more than doubled when preceded by a period of preconception health care.
PRECONCEPTION CARE CHECKLIST
* lifestyle modification
* improved diet and nutrition
* diagnostic tests and protocols
* natural treatments and medicines
* non-invasive medical tests and treatments
* counselling and relaxation therapy
* charting and timing techniques.
Benefits for prospective parents:
* increased chance of a healthy conception, pregnancy, birth & baby
* an alternative to assisted reproductive technology for most fertility problems
* gentle, natural and safe – does not threaten health
* an empowering experience of understanding and managing one’s own fertility
* improved general health and energy
* equal involvement and support for each partner
* learn safe, natural contraception for after the birth
* helpful for older parents or those with undiagnosed fertility problems.
Benefits for pregnancy & birth:
*decreased chance of miscarriage, premature birth or stillbirth
* decreased occurrence of common pregnancy complaints (such as morning sickness)
* decreased occurrence of more serious problems (such as gestational diabetes, hypertension)
* decreased risk of postnatal depression
* increased chance of a natural, unmedicated birth.
Benefits for your baby & child:
* increased chance of a healthy, happy baby
* reduced risk of congenital malformations (birth defects)
* increased chance of problem-free breastfeeding and close bonding
* less likely to suffer from various health and learning problems in childhood
* parents educated about diet and nutrition for growing family.
Benefits if Assisted Reproductive Technology is required:
* preconception care has been found to more than double the chances of success with IVF
* preconception care helps to avoid the increased miscarriage and health risks to mother and infant that may occur when Assisted Reproduction Technology is used.
About the author:
Loula George is a registered naturopath and medical herbalist specialising in women’s health and fertility. She works at the Motherwell clinic in Auckland. (See: http://www.mother-well.co.nz/ ) She offers a preconception health programme for couples who experience infertility or recurrent miscarriages. Her preconception programme is also for couples who have no fertility problems but would like to prepare for a healthy pregnancy to ensure the best start to their baby’s life. Loula also teaches and runs public health seminars in the community.
Resources and Bibliography
(1) Foresight – www.foresight-preconception.org.uk. Foresight study conducted in conjunction with Surrey University (published in the Journal of Nutritional& Environmental Medicine 1995),clearly shows the effectiveness of preconception care
(2) Dr Alan Beer – Is Your Body Baby Friendly AJR Publishing 2006
(3) Foresight Study (2003) – shows a more than doubled conception success for IVF of 47.1% following preconception care
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