Used to be that when you started to think about trying for a baby, you'd do a bit of genetic testing, and maybe get a recommendation on a prenatal vitamin. But preconceptual wellness has come a long way! Whether you want to lay a solid foundation well before whipping out the ovulation calculator or you've been trying to get pregnant for a while, there's more to it than popping a supplement and eating your veggies.
Nutritionist Carolyn Gundell, who leads the Fertility Nutrition Program at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut (RMACT), works with reproductive endocrinologists to help women lead a more "fertile lifestyle." "Before pregnancy, this can really help patients improve not only their ovulatory function, but optimize their overall health," Gundell says. "And [the message] is let's not just adopt these behaviors to get pregnant, but for life. Because our health is the best gift we can give our children."
Here, 9 easy ways to live a more "fertile lifestyle" and boost your chances of getting pregnant.
- Get zen. We hear all the time just how much damage chronic stress can do on the body, and that is especially true of the havoc it can wreak on fertility. A study done by the University of California found that stress causes the adrenal glands to produce steroid hormones, which, through certain mechanisms, affect the production of major reproductive hormones. In turn, hormonal imbalance can throw off ovulation. Finding a way to manage stress on a daily basis (either through therapy, meditation, yoga, or taking time for yourself to enjoy a hobby) can counter this effect, advises Gundell.
- Clean up your personal environment. Reducing exposure to environmental toxins -- like bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in the lining of many food cans and other plastics, other estrogenic plastics, and even heavy metals in certain types of fish -- can help you get your hormonal health on track. "We do suggest patients go purchase [typically canned] foods, like soups, in boxes," advises Gundell. "There are a couple companies out there that have BPA-free cans, and that's fine, but also note that canned vegetables are lower in folic acid than frozen and fresh." And while you're working on getting your adequate hydration for the day, Gundell suggets opting for a stainless steel water bottle over plastic.
- Flip the switch on your weight loss approach. Although most of us have been conditioned to refer to the scale as the be all, end all measure of fitness, fertility experts recommend switching your focus from weight to body mass index, or BMI. "Optimizing BMI into a normal range is the best way to balance hormones to optimize ovulation and conception," explains reproductive endocrinologist Michael Heard, M.D., member of the Proxeed Plus medical advisory board and director of The Heard Clinic in Houston, Texas. What's more, yo-yo dieting, which often goes hand-in-hand with watching the scale like a hawk, can actually hinder conception. "Yo-yo dieting becomes very stressful, and trying to maintain an [extreme] loss is stressful," explains Gundell. "Every time we gain more fat mass, we gain more fat cells, and when we lose weight, we never lose the number of fat cells, only the mass, the size of them. And there are certainly fat cell hormones that will affect our fertility." To that end, Gundell recommends that women shoot to reach and maintain a healthy weight that's sustainable. "It may not be that ideal in a woman's mind, but it's a weight that's not so hard to stay at," Gundell says. "So she's really not jumping 20-40 pounds up and down."
- Balance your workout plan. Getting stuck in a "cardio rut" is a trap many of us fall into, but it's especially important while thinking about conception to incorporate weight-bearing exercise (like hiking, stair climbing, high-impact aerobics), which will reduce body fat by bolstering muscle.
- Steer clear of dirty produce. It's best to stick to certain fruits and veggies only if they're grown organically, given the amount of endocrine-disrupting pesticides in their conventional counterpart. "You don't want people to feel like they live in a bubble, but we do ask patients to buy organics when it comes to the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen," notes Gundell. "I feel very strongly about that, and it makes a lot of sense for both male and female preconception, and in utero growing brains, to do that."
- Read into your food. Making a point to read and understand your food labels (i.e., knowing what "all-natural" means, which is basically nothing, since the FDA doesn't regulate those terms vs. USDA certified organic) can help you make better choices. Even if you don't see that organic seal on a food, Gundell encourages her patients to at least ensure that the milk and meat-products they're buying are hormone- and antibiotic-free.
- Do your best not to slack on snoozing. If there's one thing Gundell implores her preconceptual patients to do as much as eat right and exercise, it's get adequate sleep (generally about 7 to 9 hours a night), which will help regulate hormonal health -- and prevent diabetes. That's because, as Gundell explains, lack of sleep or poor quality sleep raises blood sugar and negatively impacts metabolism and weight management. "It can also upset hormones, particularly those found in sperm maturation, and also the ovulation process," notes Gundell. In fact, a study done by the University of San Diego researchers found that a woman experiencing sleep irregularities are more likely to experience irregular periods and difficulty conceiving than a woman who has gotten the recommended amount of sleep.
- Eat up. Skipping meals is a big no-no that way too many of us do, Gundell reveals. "People will run with coffee and get on a train or grab-and-go for lunch, because they've gotta get to a meeting, and their balance of nutrition is very off," she explains. "They may have one balanced meal at dinner, and that's going to stress the body quite a bit." It can also increase risk for insulin resistance and contribute to weight gain. Obviously, those are all things we want to avoid. (See #1.)
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- Don't ditch carbs altogether. With diets like the grain/gluten-free Paleo regimen and Atkins so popular these days, it's easy to end up assuming that the best way to lose weight and boost fitness is to steer clear of carbs. Not so, warns Gundell. Yes, you want to just say "no" to refined and processed carbs that get digested very quickly (like sweets, juice, vending machine snacks, white pasta, white bread), but enjoying complex/whole grains and carbs with higher fiber (like whole grain bread and pasta, salad, brown rice, lentils, beans, quinoa, steel cut oats) is integral to keeping your metabolism -- and body overall -- in balance.
What lifestyle changes have you made or do you plan to make before trying for baby?
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