Better babies – preconception and pregnancy health
Our children’s health starts in the womb
Preconception and pregnancy health really is the ultimate form of preventative health. We now know the first nine months in the womb can influence your child’s health for the rest of their lives. What a wonderful opportunity to have a positive effect on your wee ones life!
It is empowering to think that by improving your health through preconception and pregnancy you can actually make a dent in the growing epidemic of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity in the next generation.
Latest research into preconception health focuses on something called epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to modifications to genes that alter the way they behave or are ‘expressed’, without actually causing any change to DNA. This can lead to changes that predispose your child to certain diseases even though you don’t have the genes for the predisposition. A tragic but good example of this happened during the Dutch famine of 1944. The Nazi occupied western Netherlands was highly rationed and eventually cut off from food supply. Malnourished pregnant women developed a change in their genes that produced a change in expression of their children’s genes. This change caused the offspring of these women to be predisposed genetically to cardiovascular disease, kidney problems, diabetes, obesity and other health problems. All despite having plenty of food and good nutrition themselves. The babies of these malnourished women were, as expected, a smaller than normal birth weight, but interestingly their children were also smaller than normal. The research done into these women, their babies and grandchildren was the first of it’s kind and has led to more understanding of how important maternal nutrition is to the health of your offspring, and the health of their offspring too.
The eggs and sperm that you conceive with are formed up to 100 days before conception. For this reason three to four months of preparation is ideal to ensure the healthiest eggs and sperm possible.
In 1978 the Forsight Center in the UK did some groundbreaking research about fertility and the reduction of miscarriages and foetal health problems. Their approach was based on what we now call ‘preconception care’ and involved diet, supplementation and lifestyle measures that would correct any deficiencies in parents before they conceived. The results were quite astounding. They found that over 75% of couples with fertility issues went on to have healthy babies. Additionally, they worked with high risk couples over a period of 10 years, and were able to reduce the rate of birth defects in that group to 0.47%. The national average in the UK is 6%. As well as correcting deficiencies, the Forsight approach is focused on avoiding toxins of all kinds for the critical 3 months before conception (and during pregnancy) and the men’s health is vitally important too. They continue to do research and work in the area of preconception care today.
Exciting research for allergies
A clinical trail on a particular strain of probiotic called lactobaccilus rhamnosus GG has produced some promising results regarding eczema and allergies in children. They found that when taken in the last trimester of pregnancy and through breast feeding, this particular strain may reduce the incidence of eczema in children, and reduce the incidence of children with atopic conditions such as allergic rhinitis and food allergy. I certainly get my clients onto it if there are allergies in the family, and it seems to be very helpful.
Get the basics right
Most people have heard about the importance of folic acid supplementation for at least 3 moths pre pregnancy. Certain drugs can interfere with the absorption or utilization of folic acid including the oral contraceptive. Folic acid is a type of B vitamin and also referred to as B9 or folate. It is an important nutrient for, among other things, rapid cell division and therefore required in larger amounts during pregnancy when our bodies are busy dividing cells like there’s no tomorrow. Neural tube defects are the most frank sign of this deficiency, although it is likely that less severe changes arise in the embryo with milder deficiencies. Your doctor will prescribe a folic acid from the pharmacy although I have noticed a few doctors recommending the more expensive brand name folic acid/pregnancy multivitamin lately. My advice is to ask for the standard subsidized folic acid because although it looks impressive, the other (popular) folic acid/multivitamin is really just folic acid with a sprinkling of other nutrients and a high price tag. You are better off to take the subsidized folic acid and a decent multivitamin. And remember your food sources too! Green leafy vegetables, legumes, liver and nuts are the best source of folic acid in food.
One last word about folic acid. Some research has suggested that up to 30% of the population may not be able to convert folic acid within the body to it’s activated form. This would leave a person with a deficiency even if they were taking folic acid. If I suspect this in a client due to recurrent miscarriage or a previous child with birth defects, I will get them on to a special form of folic acid that their body doesn’t have to activate.
Iodine is an important mineral for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland, which governs growth and development. From conception through to adulthood it is vital for brain development and cognitive function. This makes it an important preconception consideration.
A study in 2005 found that infants that were breastfed had iodine levels half that of formula fed infants, showing the high rate of deficiency among New Zealand mothers. This is no reason to use formula, but a good reason to consult with someone about taking iodine.
Iodine deficiency became quite widespread in the early 1900’s in New Zealand but leveled out with the iodisation of salt. Unfortunately the iodine status of kiwis has been declining again to such a level that intervention is once again required. Iodine was recently added to bread in an attempt to increase the general populations intake. Iodine is naturally found in seafood and shellfish, seaweed, eggs and spinach. Most other fruits, vegetables, meat and grains should contain some level of iodine but it is reflective of the amount of iodine in the soil. New Zealand now has very low levels of iodine in our soil as does our animal feed (whether grass or chicken feed etc). Three other reasons for the mass deficiency include:
- High consumption of commercially prepared foods that usually contain non-iodised salt (it is cheaper).
- The decrease in use of iodised salt for health reasons and also the rise of rock salt etc.
- The declining use of iodine containing sanitizers (cleaning products) in the dairy industry, leading to a decline of iodine in our dairy products.
Some doctors now make it a standard prescription when you fall pregnant and I often recommend continuing it through breastfeeding. It is important not to self prescribe iodine in case you really don’t need it. Some people can get palpitations, over active thyroid and anxiety if they take iodine when they don’t need it.
There are a myriad of other options, some necessary, some not, you will hear about on your journey to becoming pregnant and/or having your child. You and your baby’s requirement will be unique, therefore seek advice from experts. And remember, you want to give your offspring roots in the ground and wings to fly with, not eczema or obesity!