Most people are aware of the importance of eating well during pregnancy, but did you know it’s equally important to ensure correct nutrition before the baby is conceived?
Everything you eat, drink and experience can influence fertility. Therefore, establishing optimal nutritional status prior to pregnancy will increase the chances of getting pregnant and establish the best environment to nourish your baby for nine months and beyond.
Research shows that a good state of health and nutrition before pregnancy can reduce the risk of diseases such as asthma, allergies, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The preconception period is defined as the three to twelve months prior to conception, which is the average time it takes fertile couples to become pregnant. However, a minimum of three months is necessary to correct any deficiencies, as it takes approximately 100 days for the final stages of oocyte development.
While the preconception nutritional status is important for both partners, this blog post will focus on the nutrition recommendations for the mother-to-be.
Eat a whole food diet
Preconception is not a time for extreme diets or cleanses, but a time for nutrient repletion. Focusing on eating a whole food diet, rich in proteins, complex carbohydrates, essential fats, fruits and vegetables. Including fresh, seasonal foods, organic when possible, will provide a blend of synergistic nutrients required for healthy preconception.
At the same time, it is necessary to limit or avoid highly processed foods, added sugar and salt, trans fats and alcohol intake. Alcohol can slow the ability of the embryo to mature and implant, and significantly increase the hormone oestrogen. When oestrogen is high at the wrong time of a woman’s cycle, it can reduce or delay the ability for natural ovulation.
Also, a whole food diet can support the regulation of blood sugar levels during the preconception period as poor glycemic control increases the risk of gestational diabetes.
Entering pregnancy with adequate iron is important, as the body’s need for iron almost doubles during pregnancy to support rapidly expanding blood volume and tissue growth.
Iron is also needed for the correct formation of foetal blood, brain, eyes, bones and healthy growth rate. Many women go through their entire pregnancy without attaining the minimum required intake of iron. Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm birth and is one of the leading causes of anaemia in infants and young children.
The most easily absorbed form of iron is called heme iron, found in animal sources such as red meat, organ meat, poultry and fish. Non-heme iron from plant sources such as beans, lentils, spinach and tofu is more difficult to absorb. However, pairing these foods with vitamin-C-rich foods, such as red capsicum, tomato or lemon juice, will boost iron absorption.
Vitamin B Complex
The B-vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins with an indispensable role during preconception.
There are eight B vitamins, collectively referred to as the vitamin B complex. Most women are aware that it is common practice to supplement with folate (vitamin B9) during the preconception period, to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
However, vitamin B12 is just as important as it works synergistically with folate. So supplementation of one without the other can disrupt the balance. A deficiency of vitamin B12 has been linked to infertility and spontaneous miscarriage.
Alcohol use, carbohydrate-rich diets and the oral contraceptive pills deplete the body of B vitamins. In addition, stress increases the need for B vitamins.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Oily fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Adequate intake is needed to ensure stable cell membrane fluidity and energy production of the oocyte. Furthermore, the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) component of Omega-3 fatty acids is integral for the building blocks of our brain, nervous and hormonal systems and is therefore especially important for women who are planning to conceive. Choosing low mercury fish is a priority to avoid potential toxicity.
Iodine is a naturally occurring mineral that is essential for healthy brain and nervous system development. Iodine deficiency is a growing issue in Australia, due to depleted soils and more than 30% of non-pregnant women of child-bearing age have suboptimal iodine levels.
Iodine is needed for the synthesis of thyroid hormones. Before conceiving, thyroid hormones regulate ovulation, so correct intake of iodine is necessary for fertility. As babies can’t produce iodine, they rely on the mother’s iodine intake to optimise their brain and nervous system development. Adequate intake of iodine during the preconception period can prevent the risk of iodine deficiency in pregnancy.
Fibre, found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds feed the good bacteria in the gut. In particular, some forms of dietary fibre, such as apricots, artichokes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, garlic, almonds, barley, hazelnuts and legumes, act as prebiotics and have the potential to improve the balance of the gut microbiome. This can improve fertility outcomes.
This is important because alterations in gut microbiome diversity can reduce or increase the activity of the enzyme β-glucuronidase, resulting in lower or higher levels of oestrogen and impairing ovulation. Aim for 25-30g of fibre per day.
Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before taking supplements.
Treat the body as if it is already pregnant, Eat well, sleep well and reduce your exposure to environmental toxins.
The nutritional advice above can prepare the body physically, but it is also important to prepare mentally. Stress negatively impacts fertility, by inhibiting the production of reproductive hormones such as luteinising hormone, oestrogen and progesterone.
Stress is also transferred through the egg’s DNA to the foetus. In addition, stress causes changes to the gut microbiome and increases the level of colonic inflammation. A regular meditation practice can be a wonderful antidote to stress and calm the mind and nervous system. This can bring a woman’s hormonal system into greater health and balance.
Practice Fertility Yoga
Fertility yoga helps to regulate the nervous system and just like meditation reduces circulating stress hormones. Yoga for fertility includes postures such as Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Butterfly Pose), that create space and softness in the lower belly, and increase blood supply to the reproductive organs.
Restorative yoga practices allow women to learn how to activate their body’s natural relaxation response, relieving them from a state of chronic stress.
Tammy Shemesh is a Prenatal, Postnatal and Women’s Yoga teacher, Clinical Nutritionist and Eating Psychology Coach specialising in body image. Tammy is also a Bliss Baby Yoga graduate and has supported us with marketing. She now runs a nutrition clinic with a special interest in pre and postnatal nutrition. You can find out about her work via her website Body Love Matters.
If you are passionate about nurturing women during preconception, and supporting natural fertility through yoga, you may be interested in our Bliss Baby Yoga Online Yoga for Fertility Teacher Training courses. We also offer Online Extension Modules to enhance and further your learning covering topics including Perinatal Nutrition & Ayurveda, Prenatal & Postnatal Anatomy and Physiology and Pelvic Floor Anatomy and Physiology for Women’s Health.
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