Lifestyle and supplement tips for a healthy pregnancy, from conception to delivery
“A healthy pregnancy begins before you conceive, because you don’t know you’re pregnant until two to three weeks after conception,” says Adrienne Stewart, NMD, a naturopathic doctor at Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Ariz., who specializes in preconception health. Consequently, she recommends taking stock of your lifestyle as soon as you think about having children—or sooner, because half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
Women and men each influence 40 percent of the fertility equation (the remaining 20 percent is a mystery), so the health of both parents is important. In particular, three key areas influence healthy conception and development of a baby, says Stewart: hormone balance, nutrition, and exposure to toxins.
Hormonally, thyroid disorders among women can be an obstacle to conception, and can make a pregnancy more difficult, or there may be other hormonal imbalances. If you have difficulty conceiving, work with a naturopathic or integrative physician to correct the situation. (To get a sense of your own thyroid situation, try the online test at thethyroidquiz.com.)
Hormones and Toxins
Toxins disrupt hormones and life in the womb. A common one is BPA (bisphenol-A), found in plastics, linings of cans, and tap water. Although some water bottles and food containers are now BPA-free, many still are not. Recent studies show that although our exposure to BPA from any one source is low, the combined, long-term effect is significant.
Studies published in various scientific journals have found that BPA interferes with the normal maturation of human eggs and contributes to polycystic ovary syndrome, decreased fertility, allergies, behavior problems, and obesity in children, and is linked to boys being born with undescended testicles.
Food, water, what we put on our skin, and substances we bring in to our environment, such as household cleaners and garden pesticides, are common sources of toxins. But we can and should control our exposure, before and during pregnancy (and always).
This, says Stewart, is how to do it:
Eat organic food: This helps significantly reduce your and your baby’s exposure to toxic pesticides and additives, as well as synthetic growth hormones in conventional meat and dairy products. Eat only low-mercury fish, such as wild salmon, herring, sardines, tilapia, and Pacific sole. For a longer list, see the "Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish" at nrdc.org. In particular, choose organic versions of the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide load (see ewg.org/foodnews for a shopper’s guide).
Eat lots of green and cruciferous vegetables: Not only are these nutritious, but they also help your body to eliminate toxins.
Avoid sugar and starch: Both cause spikes in blood sugar, and contribute to hormone imbalance and higher risk for gestational diabetes.
Water: Drink filtered or spring water, and ideally, use a filter on your showerhead.
Food containers: Use those that are BPA-free, glass, or stainless steel.
Avoid other toxins: Use non-toxic skin and hair care products, household cleaners, and garden pesticides. And avoid air fresheners with “fragrance,” which most often contain carcinogenic toxins.
Beware of drug risks: Drugs are not routinely tested on pregnant women before being approved, and can pose serious risks. For example, a study of 5,124 women in Canada, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that taking antidepressants while pregnant increased the risk of a miscarriage by 68 percent. If you take any medication, check with a knowledgeable doctor if it has been tested or studied on pregnant women and if not, seek out a natural or tested alternative.
Manage stress:Some women get very stressed about things that could harm their baby, says Stewart, who recommends talking to friends who are pregnant or have had children, and your doctor, to get the facts. Being well educated and taking birthing classes should help alleviate concerns.
Do moderate exercise: Even if you’ve been inactive, start walking, or work with a knowledgeable trainer during your pregnancy.
Get Vital Nutrients
Folic acid prevents birth defects in the brain and spine, but it does even more.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that when taken by women from four weeks before conception through the first eight weeks of pregnancy, folic acid lowered risk of the child being autistic by 40 percent.
Prospective fathers also need folic acid. In an study published in Nature Communications, researchers found that insufficient folic acid in a father’s diet increased risk of birth defects by nearly 30 percent. Many multivitamins contain sufficient amounts, while providing additional benefits (see sidebar, right).
Vitamin D is another vital nutrient. A study found that doses of 4,000 IU daily halved pregnancy complications, compared to 400 IU daily. However, physicians usually recommend testing for individual needs or taking 1,000–2,000 IU daily.
Equally important, take fish oil or a vegan source of the key omega-3s. Babies need DHA for healthy brain development, and the mother needs both EPA and DHA for overall health and to help prevent postpartum depression.
“Health begins in the womb,” says Stewart. "Taking good care of yourself before and during your pregnancy is the ultimate preventive medicine.”
OUR PRODUCT PICKS
SUNWARRIOR Raw Vegan
Protein in Natural flavor
is made with raw sprouted brown rice—try mixing it with coconut water to fight morning sickness.
RAINBOW LIGHT Prenatal One Multivitamin is specially formulated for the nutritional needs of mom and baby with a full range of vitamins and minerals—plus ginger to combat nausea.
FUTUREBIOTICSCertified Organic Folic Acid derives this important vitamin from organic lemon peels using no chemical solvents or pesticides. Each tablet provides 800 mcg of folic acid.
FLORA 7 Sources oil supports pregnancy and nursing with omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids from seven vegetarian sources including flax and coconut oils. Add to salads, cereal, or other unheated foods.
ALVITA Organic Ginger Root Tea eases nausea and aids digestion with whole ginger root. The tea is naturally caffeine-free and comes in tea bags (24 per box). Add honey to sweeten if desired.
Soup Photo: Pornchai Mittongtare; Food Styling: Liesl maggiore; Prop Styling: Robin Turk
Vera Tweed is a Los-Angeles based health and fitness writer with more than 20 years of experience.