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August 23, 2016

We know that dietary and lifestyle factors can affect both fertility and a healthy pregnancy. Sandra Clair from Artemis shares her advice on the best ways to look after yourself at this important time.

For most women, falling pregnant prompts some big lifestyle changes.  It is a time of exciting new beginnings!  Women will eat different food, focusing on nutrients beneficial in pregnancy, stop eating risky foods, such as soft cheese or shellfish and most often they wont touch a drop of alcohol.  They introduce new activities like prenatal yoga or walking, start buying natural skincare, stop dying their hair or painting their nails and become mindful of the exposure to unnecessary chemicals. 

All these changes make for a healthier person.  The motivation for these changes, of course, is to grow a healthy baby.  

Research shows us that the baby’s health is built on the health of the parents at the time of conception.  The condition of the sperm and egg contain the genetic blueprint.  These are the genes that they are born with and they define many of the characteristics throughout their life.

I recommend that the “let’s have a baby” conversation should prompt these healthy lifestyle changes, and not the double blue line!

  • The four month health check for prospective parents

The four months leading up to conception are the most influential, particularly to enhance your chance of conception.  The goal is to create the right environment for a pregnancy to occur – so an egg can fertilise, implant and grow into a healthy baby.


Diet and exercise

Eat a balanced diet with a variety of wholefoods and plant-based nutrients.  Keep active with moderate exercise.  Don’t smoke.  Drink alcohol only in moderation.  I also recommend reducing your intake of caffeine.

Natural support for preconception

Plant medicine balances and strengthens the body and promotes normal (healthy) function.  Particular plants can repair imbalanced hormones, cervical mucus and nutrient deficiencies. These imbalances are common and sometimes have no symptoms so can go undetected. Plant medicine works over a number of cycles, generally 2-3 months.  I recommend all women wanting to get pregnant look to plant medicine for support, particularly if they are not long off the contraceptive pill.

I was very lucky to train for three years with a traditional midwife and herbalist in Switzerland.  Sister Pauline helped a lot of women fall pregnant under her guidance and so I’ve seen plant medicine restore balance and lead to many successful pregnancies. 

My favourite medicinal plants to enhance fertility are:

  • Chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus castus) is a key fertility plant to support ovulation.  Sadly, we see a lot of estrogen dominance in women these days.  This means progesterone levels often aren’t at optimal levels to conceive.  Clinical research shows Chaste tree berries can correct progesterone deficiency and enhance corpus luteum development (in layman terms: enables the embryo to implant and grow).
  • Nettle (Urtica dioica) is full of nutrients!  A great medicinal plant for preconception health because it supports the pH balance of cervical mucus so that sperm isn’t obstructed in its journey to meet the egg.  It is abundant in minerals and vitamins that are critical for endometrium health, including iron.  Additionally, it supports the liver and kidney to clear wastes and toxins. 
  • I recommend women take Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) and Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) to support circulation in and to the pelvis.  Both are also beneficial for women with polycystic ovary syndrome as they balance blood sugar levels, a significant concern in this condition.
  • Another key medicinal plant is Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) which strengthens the uterine muscle and helps build healthy endometrium (the lining of the uterus).
  • For men, new research confirms the traditional use of Ginseng (Panax ginseng) to improve sperm quality.  It also comprises of essential minerals zinc and vitamin C to enhance the health and quantity of sperm. 

Weight

Being overweight or underweight can impede ovulation and affect sperm production.  Aim for a body-mass-index of 20-25.  If you are overweight, the earlier you address this the better.  Sustainable weight loss will take time and is best tackled with a healthy lifestyle overhaul.  Excess weight in pregnancy has risk factors too so there are many benefits to addressing this as early as possible.  At the other end of the scale is a low body weight.  Underweight women are more likely to have an irregular cycle and if you're missing periods, you won't release an egg (ovulate) during each cycle.

Stress

Stress directly affects the endocrine system.  This system needs to function properly to produce the hormones needed for conception.  Excess stress is often associated with long menstrual cycles and not falling pregnant.  On the other hand, if you've been trying to get pregnant for a while, it can be stressful to get your period each month.  These feelings of anxiety and stress are counterproductive to fertility. 

Plant medicine helps to manage cortisol production.  Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is indicated again for use as it’s a versatile medicinal plant!  The glycyrrhizin present in its root has a similar structure to the hormones produced by the adrenals (including cortisol) and mimics the beneficial effects in the body.  It helps build resistance to all types of stress, particularly emotional stress.   

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is the best medicinal plant for nourishing the nervous system with wide use and vast evidence to support its use to in mild to moderate depression. 

Reduce exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals we encounter in our everyday lives that act like hormones in our body.  Unfortunately, they can interfere with our own natural hormone production and have devastating effects with infertility in men and women being one. 

Research shows that EDCs may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming. 

As with any risk, the effect depends on the amount of exposure, the dose, and your individual response.  The exact risk is hard to measure, but we do know that the evidence of harm from EDCs is strong and is mounting.  And for that reason, it’s best to reduce your exposure as much as possible.

  • How can you reduce your exposure (EDC in brackets)?
  • Eat organic food whenever possible to avoid pesticides
  • Buy fresh or frozen instead of canned unless the can is BPA free (Bisphenol-A)
  • Avoid artificial and natural flavours in processed foods
  • Avoid heating foods in plastic containers – use glass instead
  • Use a stainless steel drink bottle, not plastic
  • Use a bamboo chopping board instead of plastic
  • Avoid anti-bacterial soaps and cleaning products (Triclosan)
  • Avoid stain-resistant, non-stick and Teflon products (Perfluorinated chemicals)
  • Avoid personal care products and perfume with parabens, phthalates, plasticizers, sodium lauryl sulfate and dioxin
  • Consider non-hormonal birth control

Support your detoxification pathways

If there’s one thing I recommend everyone do, it’s to support your liver and kidneys.  Your detoxification organs are very important because they process everything that we eat, drink and breathe.  Even what we absorb through our skin!  They work very hard and need extra, daily support.  You are at your best when your detoxification pathways are functioning well.  By supporting these pathways every day, you give your body the best chance to act in its most optimal state. 

Look after sperm

Sperm is susceptible to heat so keep testicles cool.  It’s best to avoid hot baths and electric blankets until you’re pregnant.  It is better to wear boxer shorts than tight briefs.  Don’t keep your cell phone in pockets near the testes.

Seek help early

I highly recommend you deal with health issues promptly and don't wait for them to resolve themselves.  You and your partner need to be in good working order!  So if you suspect that something is out of balance, seek help from your health practitioner.  Remember, there are many natural options to try if you are having difficulty, plant medicine is particularly helpful and has thousands of years of effective use. 

Be realistic with the time it can take to get pregnant.  With many couples trying for a family later in life, it can take longer than expected.  If you are a 30 years old and you’ve been trying for 12 months, seek help.  If you’re over 35 and trying, seek help after 6 months. 

Summary

Fertility support is complex but the good news is that there’s much you can do yourself.  I hope this has given you a broad overview of the areas to focus your efforts on.  Nutritional support with food and plant medicine is a great place to start.  Aim for balance in your life – with exercise and things that make you feel good to combat any stress you may feel.  Educate yourself on what’s in our environment so you can make conscious decisions for your family.  And my number one tips is to support your liver and kidneys to function well as the foundation for good health and wellbeing.

To give your precious baby the best possible start in life, it’s so important to prioritise you and your partner’s health.  I really encourage you to not wait until you’re pregnant to make changes. Make them now!


 The six vital conditions for conception:

  1. The woman has a regular cycle and balanced hormones, each month releasing a mature and healthy egg from the ovary into the fallopian tube
  2. A man produces a sufficient count of normal and healthy sperm.
  3. In conjunction with ovulation, the mucus that lines the woman’s vagina and cervix becomes thin enough to allow swift passage of sperm.
  4. Once sperm and egg meet in the fallopian tubes, the sperm is able to penetrate the surface of the egg to fertilise it.
  5. The fallopian tube is open for the fertilised egg to move down into the uterus for implantation.
  6. The lining of the uterus is healthy and has built up sufficiently under the influence of the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and endometrium-nourishing nutrients.  This creates a favourable environment for the fertilised egg to implant and start growing.  An insufficient womb lining is a major reason for eggs not to implant properly.

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