Preconception is the 3-6 month period before conceiving. It’s an important time as it is when your eggs and sperm are developing and maturing inside you. Sperm development takes approximately 75 days, which means that everything you eat and drink in the 3 months prior to conception can either positively or negatively affect your sperm quality. The same goes for female follicles/eggs with full maturation taking 100 days.
The key reasons to put time and energy into preconception care:
• For women, it ensures that your nutrient levels are sufficient prior to pregnancy, this negates having to play “catch up” when you realise your levels are low, I see this commonly with iron stores.
• It can enhance the quality of your eggs and sperm and in turn improve pregnancy outcomes. Can prevent development of disease and promote the health of future generations.
• Once pregnant, it’s often too late to start making dramatic health promoting lifestyle changes. Preparing for pregnancy means that you are supporting your baby from the very first moments.
The reason I include advice for both men and women in this article is because the health of both partners is critical for optimal fertility. We don’t hear much about the male partners’ role in pregnancy outcomes, despite research telling us that 50% of miscarriages are due to sperm issues. We also know that paternal lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption prior to conception can increase risk of birth defects. It is for these reasons that in clinical practice I try to encourage a preconception plan that involves both partners.
As for same sex-couples going down the fertility route, I would like you to feel included in this too. Please know that whilst I refer to a couple as ‘male & female’, I acknowledge that this is not always the case – please take on board the relevant parts for your situation.
The Preconception Timeline for Couples
6-Months Prior to Conception:
Start to reassess dietary and lifestyle factors that may be hindering your health. The most important factors to consider are those that may be damaging your gut lining. The gut is the starting point for hormonal harmony and a robust immune system. If digestion is impaired it creates a cascading effect throughout the body and can throw off other areas of health.
Start by detoxifying from substances that are wreaking havoc to your digestive system, this may include:
• Abstaining for alcohol, recreational drugs & pharmaceutical medications (where possible)
• Removing refined sugars, packaged foods and unhealthy fats (fried foods, takeaway, junk foods).
• Cut back on soft drinks and energy drinks.
• Limit caffeine
Include foods that nourish your body, and support optimal fertility:
• Fresh fruit
• Vegetables – a mix of raw and cooked
• Nuts and seeds
• Proteins – a mix of animal and plant protein sources
• Healthy fats
• Whole grains
• Fermented foods – sauerkraut, kim-chi, miso, yoghurt
• Herbs and spices – turmeric, ginger, parsley, chilli etc
5-Months Prior to Conception:
It is time to start thinking about your hormones. The hormonal systems of both men and women play a huge role in the success of a pregnancy. For men, testosterone helps with improving sperm health. For women, oestrogen and progesterone help with egg quality and to ensure a healthy uterine lining (endometrium) for an embryo to implant into. Progesterone also encourages the growth of the gestational sac.
Five months out is a good time to identify and remove any chemicals that may interfere with the hormonal system, these are called ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’. These can be found in household cleaning products, cosmetics, plastic water bottles, perfumes and deodorants. I recommend switching as many products to natural as possible. While it may feel like a big shift at the time, it will have a great impact on your fertility, pregnancy and health of your future family.
I recommend investing in the following:
· A good quality water filter
· Glass/stainless steel containers
· Natural laundry soap and dishwashing detergent
· Natural cosmetics
· Natural deodorant
4-Months Prior to Conception:
You’re getting to the pointy end of things! Now it is time to speak with your health practitioner (such as your GP) about getting pathology testing. Your practitioner will be able to advise which tests are best for you. I also recommend getting your vitamin D, iron, serum zinc and B12 levels checked as well as your thyroid hormones.
After blood testing, start a supplement regime that is supportive of your fertility. I really recommend seeking the advice of a holistic health care professional (such as a naturopath or nutritionist), as requirements for nutrients can differ dramatically from person to person. Practitioners like myself can take into consideration your blood test results, dietary practices, current health concerns, and future goals to make sure you are getting the correct dosage of nutrients for you. If seeing a holistic practitioner is out of reach for you, please see my website for my recommended core supplement recommendations. Always choose quality supplements – it is worth it!
For women, supplements help to prepare your body for pregnancy and help fill in any gaps that you have in your diet. For men, the correct supplements help you to improve your testosterone levels and sperm quality, and can help to increase your chances of conceiving a healthy baby.
3-Months Prior to Conception:
At the three month mark, you should start to notice big shifts to your overall health and wellbeing. At this point I would recommend a review of your exercise regime and body weight.
Achieving a healthy body weight is ideal as being under or overweight can have various health consequences for fertility. For women, being overweight/obese can inhibit ovulation. This also goes for women that are underweight, having a low BMI can negatively impact fertility. For the guys, being overweight can negatively impact sperm count and sperm quality.
As for exercise, I advocate for the method of movement that you enjoy most. That may be walking, yoga, running, riding, swimming, dancing, or weight lifting. For the ladies, I generally advise that you find a way to move that you can envision continuing throughout your pregnancy.
The Final 8-Weeks Prior to Conception:
You are so close! All the hard work is done already. Now is the time to relax and enjoy this special time. For the next 8 weeks, you should continue your dietary and lifestyle habits but also start to slow down, de-stress and focus on your relationship with your partner. The reproductive system is smart and knows that in times of stress it is not safe to bring a baby into the world. The pre-preconception phase is a great time to explore what forms of relaxation may suit you.
· Meditation- there are some great apps out there – insight timer, head space etc.
· Yoga- ticking both the gentle exercise & relaxation boxes
· Floatation therapy- this treatment has the restorative effects of four hours sleep & the high content of magnesium is perfect for relaxation
· Time in nature- nothing is better for your health and happiness than sunshine & fresh air.
· Making time to enjoy each other’s company- doing the things you love as a couple. Include plenty of date nights, and activities together.
Following a preconception plan can help you to feel mentally and physically ready to conceive. Whilst it can be hard work to overhaul your diet and lifestyle, it is very much worth it when you are rewarded with a new addition to your family.