What is preconception care and how can it help?

It is pretty common knowledge that a mum’s health and what she eats during pregnancy is important, but what about before pregnancy? Preconception care allows both mums and dads the opportunity to have a pretty significant impact on fertility, pregnancy outcomes, birth, breastfeeding AND the long-term health of their future baby-to-be. 

So, basically, it’s a pretty big deal.

 

What is preconception care?

Ideally, preconception care should start well before (at least 4 months) prior to conception. After conception women can continue to follow preconception care practices throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The reason for the 4-month minimum time period is that it takes 100 days for the development of the egg to mature and 116 days for sperm to generate. So, the health of the egg and the sperm at the time of conception are related to the health and toxicity levels of mum and dad at around 4 months prior to the big event.

So, in a nutshell, what you eat now will affect the quality of egg and sperm production in around 3 months’ time, which ultimately impacts the health of your baby now and well into the future.

Preconception care helps couples to achieve optimum reproductive health prior to conception. This increases their likelihood of achieving pregnancy, having a healthy pregnancy and promotes the future health of their baby-to-be. 

It can also support mums to have a natural, intervention-free birth, reduce health issues post-birth such as postnatal depression and support a healthy breastfeeding relationship between mum and baby.

 

What does preconception care involve?

 

Thorough blood testing

This can help to identify any nutrient deficiencies as well as any underlying conditions that may impact on fertility. Talking to your doctor about getting some preconception screening done is a great start.

 

Nutrition

This step involves relevant dietary changes as well as nutritional supplementation. This is to optimise nutrient status, increase fertility, and reduce risk of pregnancy complications.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 2 billion people are deficient in micronutrients, with women being at particular risk because of menstruation and the high metabolic demands of pregnancy. A preconception diet can play an important role in optimising nutrient stores and correcting micronutrient deficiencies.

Cohort studies have suggested that dietary patterns up to three years before pregnancy, characterised by high intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and fish and low intake of red and processed meat, are associated with reduced risk of gestational diabetes, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and preterm birth.

 

Healthy body weight

Preconception weight loss of 10% is associated with a reduced risk of pregnancy complications and can have an impact on your child’s metabolic health in future.

A preconception diet can help couples to achieve a healthy weight before trying to conceive through following a preconception diet and doing appropriate exercise. Higher levels of physical activity in the preconception period have been shown to lower the risk of developing gestational diabetes.

 

Fertility awareness

Understanding your body and the signs it provides that tell you when and whether you can and cannot fall pregnant can be very valuable for couples. Beginning to record your menstrual cycle and the changes that you notice in your body through the month is a great start. 

Being able to identify your fertile window so that you know when you can actually fall pregnant during your menstrual cycle can be empowering and very helpful for when you are ready to conceive.

 

Stress management

Stress and anxiety have a direct effect on the health of our reproductive hormones and organs involved in fertility. Those mothers that experience stress during the preconception phase may be less likely to fall pregnant and have problems during pregnancy.

Everyone gets stressed once in a while – overexercising, demanding jobs, problems with relationships, or something more like the death of a family member. Stress can lead to problems with fertility as ovulation may get temporarily thrown out of whack.

Finding ways to manage stress is important during the preconception stage. Find out what works for you. It might be yoga, bush walking, meditation, massage or even just taking 10 minutes each morning to sit down with a cup of tea and taking a breath.

 

Elimination of environmental toxins

These days we are exposed to a number of hormone -disrupting chemicals and medications than our bodies can cope with. Although the body has sophisticated detoxification systems in place for eliminating these toxins, sometimes it can become overloaded.

During the preconception phase, do your best to reduce your exposure as much as you can. Although this is not always possible, some simple changes that you can make in your own home that can have a major impact include:

  • Switch to all-natural cleaning products, personal hygiene products or cosmetics
  • Try to purchase good quality organic produce
  • Be conscious of the products that you prepare and store your food in
  • Choose filtered water over tap water
  • Start to reduce the amount of alcohol and caffeine in your diet
  • Be conscious of how smoking, some medications and recreational drugs can affect fertility and foetal outcomes

 

Hormonal health

Issues such as painful periods, irregular cycles and PMS indicate that something is not quite right with your hormones. The months prior to trying to conceive provide the perfect opportunity to take the right steps towards balancing reproductive hormones and getting your hormonal health in check.

 

Who should practice preconception care?

Anyone! Any couple planning to conceive a baby in the future, near or far. Preconception care is beneficial for both mum and dad whether they have issues with fertility or not. 

Preconception care is particularly beneficial for couples who are:

  • Having issues with fertility (difficulty conceiving, miscarriage or still births)
  • Those undergoing IVF treatment
  • Those who are overweight or obese
  • Those who have a history of environmental toxin exposure
  • Older parents
  • Women who have previously been on medications such as the oral contraceptive pill (the oral contraceptive pill have been linked to a number of nutritional deficiencies that can play an important role in fertility)

 

Are you trying to conceive? Get off to the best start possible by booking in for a preconception care appointment here.

Want to find out more about how I can help you with preconception care? Book in for a FREE introductory call so we can chat about your unique situation and how I might be able to help. 

 

References

  1. Fleming TP, Watkins AJ, Velazquez MA, Mathers JC, Prentice AM, Stephenson J, et al. Origins of lifetime health around the time of conception: causes and consequences. Lancet [Internet]. 2018;391(10132):1842–52. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30312-X
  2. Gardiner PM, Nelson L, Shellhaas CS, Dunlop AL, Long R, Andrist S, et al. The clinical content of preconception care: nutrition and dietary supplements. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008;199.
  3. WHO. Guidelines on food fortification with micronutrients [Internet]. World Health Organisation; 2006. 341 p. Available from: http://www.unscn.org/layout/modules/resources/files/fortification_eng.pdf
  4. Stephenson J, Heslehurst N, Schoenaker D, Hutchinson J, Cade J, Poston L, et al. Before the beginning : nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health. Lancet. 2018;391(10132):1830–41.
  5. Joseph DN, Whirledge S. Stress and the HPA axis: Balancing homeostasis and fertility. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(10).
  6. Silvestris E, Lovero D, Palmirotta R. Nutrition and female fertility: An interdependent correlation. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2019;10.
  7. Vujkovic M, De Vries JH, Lindemans J, MacKlon NS, Van Der Spek PJ, Steegers EAP, et al. The preconception Mediterranean dietary pattern in couples undergoing in vitro fertilization/intracytoplasmic sperm injection treatment increases the chance of pregnancy. Fertil Steril. 2010;94(6):2096–101.

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Felicity Harvie is a holistic nutritionist that supports women and families with preconception, fertility, weight management and hormonal conditions.

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