baby looking at mother while on her lap

Do you dream of having a child? Here’s what you need to know first

You would make the best parent. You would love your child more than you love yourself and give it the best life he or she could ever possibly imagine. So why can’t you achieve that dream of having a baby? What could possibly be blocking you?

About one in eight couples have trouble either falling pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. What most of them don’t know is that diet and lifestyle play a major role in fertility and reproductive health.

It’s 50:50 in fertility

Many men don’t realise that 50 per cent of fertility issues are male related. It really does take two to tango — it’s not just up to the girls!

The health of the male’s sperm is imperative not only for a healthy conception but also for sustaining a pregnancy to term. Diet and lifestyle factors contribute to the health of the sperm and, just as with females, males also require certain vitamins and minerals that are more important than others to the health of sperm and the reproductive system. These include zinc, selenium and essential fatty acids, just to name a few.

For women, many vitamins and minerals are important, especially iron, iodine, magnesium, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, folate and vitamin B12.

The key is to ensure you are both eating a healthy diet and leading a fairly active, toxin-free lifestyle. Taking a good-quality multivitamin, magnesium and omega-3 supplement may also assist you in improving your reproductive health.

Folate first

For women, folate is one vitamin that is most essential prior to conception, not after. Women are told frequently to take folate in the early stages of pregnancy for neural tube health and to prevent spina bifida in the baby. What many trying to conceive are less commonly told is that the neural tube closes at around three or four weeks after conception. Most couples aren’t even aware they are pregnant until about week six — too late if you’re trying to prevent spina bifida.

If you’re trying for a baby, have your folate levels tested by your naturopath or GP and supplement about three months prior to conception if you’re a bit low. Eat a diet rich in folate-dense foods such as beans, eggs, green leafy vegetables, asparagus (a very good source), lentils and sprouts.

Your preconception program

If you visit a naturopath, especially one who specialises in fertility, chances are you and your partner will be put on a preconception program for a minimum of 100 days.

The reason for this is that, for men, it takes around 76 days for sperm to develop, mature and then be utilised. The sperm he ejaculates today is essentially reflective of his health status 11 weeks ago. For this reason, it’s important to ensure the father-to-be has a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Hydration is very important for both sexes, as reproductive fluids are all water based and required for healthy conception.

Similarly, it’s also important that a woman cares for her health about three or four months prior to conception. Though it is said that women are born with their lifetime supply of eggs, it takes about three to four months for an egg to mature and prepare for ovulation. The health of that mature egg is crucial to conceiving and sustaining a healthy pregnancy right through to term.

A preconception program will usually consist of diet and lifestyle modification, stress-reducing protocols, nutritional and sometimes herbal supplementation and, best of all, lots of conception practice!

Dietary factors

A healthy, well-balanced diet should consist of fresh fruit and plenty of fresh vegetables of all colours (but especially green), lean protein sources including vegetarian protein, ample fresh water and healthy fats.

In the preconception period, it’s ideal to eliminate refined sugar, alcohol, fruit juices, takeaways, fast food, deep-fried foods and pastries and any known intolerances such as dairy or gluten.

Ideally, the couple should be eating protein with every meal and snack, five serves of vegetables a day (roughly 3-4 cups), two serves of fruit per day and 2 litres of fresh water. Hydration is very important for both sexes, as reproductive fluids are all water based and required for healthy conception.

Lifestyle factors

It’s not surprising that lifestyle choices have a great impact on your reproductive health. Sedentary lifestyles are associated with lowered fertility. This makes a lot of sense, as exercise has many benefits for health such as balancing hormones, making us happy, reducing stress, increasing libido and reducing fat percentage — all things which positively affect fertility and reproductive health.

On the other end of the scale, too much exercise can also lower your fertility. It’s vital to find a happy balance and allow your body some rest days to recuperate. Too much exercise puts stress on the body and leads to hormonal imbalances and many other problems down the track.

Smoking is an obvious lifestyle choice to give up before trying for a baby. Many people vow to quit the minute they fall pregnant; however, the toxins you absorb through cigarette smoke and their effects on the body are still present long after the last cigarette has been smoked. For men, smoking can not only affect the quality of sperm but also lower sperm count and volume of semen.

Your health is a priority and, if becoming a parent is your dream, chase that dream by taking care of your stress levels.

Cigarettes contain toxic substances such as cadmium, arsenic, nickel, benzopyrene and, of course, formaldehyde, which cause damage to the genetic material within the sperm cells. This means cigarettes would need to be given up about three months prior to conception for the health of the male’s sperm to be acceptable.

The children of parents who smoke are more at risk of developing childhood cancers and many other health issues. There are so many support systems in place for smokers who wish to quit such as Quit Now, which also provides an awesome app.

Alcohol intake is another lifestyle factor involved in lowering fertility and affecting the health of your baby even before he or she is conceived. Research shows that alcohol intake can decrease a woman’s ability to fall pregnant even if her intake is only five drinks or fewer per week.

Many couples find it difficult but, if you’re trying to fall pregnant, it’s essential to abstain from alcohol to increase fertility as well as improve the health of your future baby. All scientific data studying the effects of alcohol on fertility conclude that complete abstinence is best.

Don’t stress

How often have you heard someone say that when a couple stops actively trying to fall pregnant and stops stressing about the whole ordeal, they will fall pregnant?

Many couples hate to hear this speech but there is a lot of merit to it. Stress can do pretty awful things to your health and, although a small amount of stress is healthy for the body, small amounts of stress are quite rare in this day and age.

Research clearly shows that stress negatively affects the body’s hormones and thus lowers chances of conception; this includes fertility-related stress and not only everyday stress. Stress may also negatively affect fertility treatment outcomes such as IVF.

It’s all well and good knowing that stress can lower the chances of conception, but it’s a task to actually lower your stress — especially if you’ve been actively trying to fall pregnant for a considerable amount of time. So, what can you do to actually reduce your stress levels and the associated detrimental effects on your body?

  • Take up meditation or yoga. Studies show that yoga and mindfulness meditation are not only effective in lowering stress, thus increasing chances of conception, they also help couples who are undergoing fertility treatments with patience and enhance the reproductive qualities in men.
  • Lower your workload. Many people who work long hours or run their own businesses know the effects of stress firsthand. Allowing yourself to reduce your workload without taking on any guilt is a difficult but rewarding decision to make. Your health is a priority and, if becoming a parent is your dream, chase that dream by taking care of your stress levels.
  • Become addicted to herbal tea! Now that you’re abstaining from alcohol and caffeine (yes, I said caffeine: read on to discover why), you’ll require a new drink to fill that void. Herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, skullcap and even catnip taste fantastic and reduce stress. Make it a daily ritual to sit down with your cup (or pot) of herbal tea, shut the world out and sip slowly. Listen to some soft music, burn some relaxing oils, take a bath … schedule in some daily me-time and soothe your nerves.
  • Laughter is the best medicine. It’s an old adage but completely accurate. Laughter not only signals to the body that you’re not in danger, which in turn lowers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, it also helps us to forget what is troubling us. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and make you happy. Anyone who makes you feel sad and anxious is not worth your time.

Caffeine intake

I warned you I’d come to caffeine and here we are! Before all you coffee lovers tear this page out in rage, hear me out.

I am a coffee drinker. I allow myself one coffee a day and I encourage clients to do the same as coffee does have its health benefits. However, for couples who’ve been trying to fall pregnant for some time, complete abstinence is a good idea.

Research shows that high consumption of caffeine leads to delays in conception. There’s evidence to suggest that caffeine actually reaches the follicular fluid — the fluid that surrounds the ovum in its follicle — and is harmful to reproduction.

Caffeine crosses the placenta quite easily and high coffee intake during the early stages of pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage and has even been shown to increase the risk of birth defects.  This is why it’s so important to refrain from drinking caffeinated beverages during the three months leading up to conception.

Plastics & BPA

The impact of plastic on the human body is extremely underrated. Regardless of the countless studies indicating the negative impact plastics have on the body, many people remain sceptical and continue to drink from plastic water bottles, heat their food in plastic containers, wrap their food in clingfilm and even cook with plastic.

Recently, bisphenol-A (BPA) has received a lot of attention due to its endocrine-disrupting abilities. A study done in 2009 found evidence of BPA in maternal blood, fluids such as the amniotic fluid and follicular fluid, in the placenta, umbilical cord and even in the mother’s urine. This particular study concluded that even low doses of BPA exposure increase the risk of pre-eclampsia, intrauterine growth restriction, premature birth and even miscarriage.

BPA can even be absorbed through the skin — a terrifying thought. Lowering your exposure to this substance is very important.

How can you lower your exposure to xenoestrogens such as BPA? Here are just a few changes you can make to begin with:

  • Buy a reusable glass or ceramic coffee mug instead of using the plastic-lined coffee cups from cafes.
  • Switch your drink bottle to glass or stainless steel.
  • Buy glass storage containers and throw out your plastic ones.
  • Switch to wooden or stainless steel cooking utensils.
  • Use glass cups and tumblers to drink from.

Act now, rejoice later

Taking these steps to increase your fertility and prepare for a healthier conception may feel daunting or too much of a hassle; however, three months is a very short time considering a child is forever. Ensuring the healthiest preconception period is essential to giving your baby the best possible chance for a healthy pregnancy, healthy childhood and even healthy adulthood. The choices that you make in the months leading up to conception will have long-lasting and dramatic effects on your baby long after he or she is out of the womb.

Kellie Holland

Kellie Holland

Kellie Holland is a qualified clinical nutritionist, naturopath and medical herbalist who works with patients in person and on line in Sydney and around the world. She also offers e-books, meal plans, health programs and e-courses through her website.

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