This past Thanksgiving, I found out mid turkey bite that my older brother and sister in law are expecting. Keeping my mouth shut about the news (and not choking from excitement) until they told their friends and extended family was so hard! I’m so very happy for them, and of course for myself to be an Aunty Em! At our family’s big Christmas Eve get together, the news was shared. (No really, you’re going to want to check that link out.) Since then, I’ve gone on full fertility, conception, pregnancy, and baby nutrition mode. (Thanks to my sister in law for putting up with me!) The more I learn about how what the mama eats affects the health of the baby, the more passionate I am about the subject. I fully respect the many different influences on creating a healthy baby (or a healthy adult for that matter), so I don’t want anyone thinking that nutrition is the only thing to think about. Stress, sleep, exercise, social connections, genetics and epigenetics are all important factors at play as well. But how wonderful is it that there are some simple nutritional steps one can take to greatly influence the creation of a happy, healthy baby? Or that many of the common first trimester maladies can often be prevented through food? Traditionally, cultures around the world respected what were known as “sacred fertility foods”, so much so that many of these cultures would require that a couple focus on them for at least six months leading up to conception. At some point, the standard Westerner fell of the grid when it came to respecting the vast influence that nourishment plays in creating vibrant and beautiful babies. Let’s see what we can do to relearn what we already know.
I’m going to walk us through a few different resources, providing overviews and detailing out the most important parts.
‘Empowering Fertility with a nutrient dense diet’ overview
Dr. Kaayla Daniel’s is known as the “Naughty Nutritionist” for her ability to “outrageously and humorously debunk nutritional myths”. She attended the Regional Wise Traditions Conference in Portland last September and spoke about how to create a healthy pregnancy and baby through diet. I was fully entertained and impressed by her ability to keep such an important subject lighthearted. Here are some of her main points.
Why is there such a big problem with infertility in the US?
1. Obesity: 67% of adults over 20 years old are overweight.
2. Mental health: Mental and physical health go together. About 18% of Americans have an anxiety disorder. Anti-depressant drugs tank libido and affect the chances of becoming pregnant.
3. Standard American Diet: Many studies indicate that trans fats affect the reproductive system, your brain, etc. Sometimes the switch the healthy fats is all it takes for someone who thinks they’re infertile to get pregnant. High Fructose Corn Syrup (as well as too much fructose consumption) can create problems. White sugar, excitotoxins (glutamate and aspartate from MSG and Diet products), GMO’s, pesticides, all directly affect fertility
4. Toxicity: Toxic metals change metabolic pathways in your baby. Mercury from fish is less of an issue (since fish also has selenium which helps detoxify mercury) than dental amalgams from fillings. Copper and manganese often affect PMS, menstrual problems and the future baby’s brain health. Hair mineral analysis testing can be an effective and inexpensive way to deal with the toxic metal issue. Xenoestrogens (foreign estrogens) have been linked to infertility, birth defects, hermaphroditism, and reproductive cancers. They are found in the water supply from birth control pill residue (BHA), hormone replacement therapy residue, and plastics. Phytoestrogens (often from soy) can cause infertility when consumed too much. They can also affect the thyroid gland and the central nervous system.
5. Stress and overworking- a body under stress is less likely to become and stay pregnant.
6. Caffeine, Coke, & alcohol: the data is mixed for whether small amounts of caffeine and alcohol consumption affect fertility- however, the data is clear that Coke & other soda products do. We usually know whether we’re depending on caffeine and alcohol and if so, it’s probably affecting your fertility.
7. For men: too much heat or pressure from mountain biking, heated car seats, cell phones in jeans pockets, or laptop computers can be detrimental to men’s health.
8. Being out of touch with the natural cycles of the moon: being in touch with nature can help keep women’s cycles regular. More info from Katie Singer at ‘The Garden of Fertility’.
9. Low fat, vegetarian diets- Sylvester Graham created the original Graham Cracker in 1829 for the purpose of creating a high fiber, bland food that would help suppress what he considered to be unhealthy carnal urges (aka sexual desires). He believed that foods high in fat, such as animal products, promoted sexual behaviors, which he believed to be morally wrong. John Harvey Kellogg invented Corn Flakes cereal in 1897. He was a big proponent of vegetarian diets, and was a lifelong celibate, believing that lust and sex were evil. He believed that those experiencing sexual temptations were to avoid stimulating food and to completely avoid meat. Today, there are proponents for the vegetarian diet which try to sell the diet as sexy. The diet that was once promoted as an aid to celibacy is now promoted as the sexiest diet.
When really, cholesterol feeds the entire hormone tree. Foods that are high in cholesterol are from animal products, particularly saturated fats from eggs and various meats.
The French Chef Julia Childs was a public figure who had a great passion for cooking with animal products and plenty of healthy fats. She was also very open about her lusty relationship with her husband. In an interview she was asked, “If you’re trying to avoid butter, what should you eat?” to which she responded, “Eat cream!” Her fertility foods were liver, marrow bones, and other organ meats.
10. Unhealthy gut, such as leaky gut.
‘The Paleo View’ podcast, episode 31: Paleo Pregnancy
The paleo diet is very nutrient dense, as it includes meat, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and fruits. They have the most vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, amino acids, etc. This is what your body needs to make what it needs (from new cells to another being).
Nutrients to focus on when pregnant: We’re not sure what herbs are safe during pregnancy, since it’s not ethical to do a study of pregnant women with substances that we’re not sure are safe. So we normally find out what is unsafe through accidents. It is advised not to have herbs and teas that are known to induce labor, such as evening primrose tea, raspberry leaf, some rooibos teas, and castor oil. Honey and cured meats are known to possibly cause botulism. Raw fish and deli meats are a risk of parasites, so everyone must consider whether the health benefits of these foods outweigh the risks to them.
Folate: (not folic acid), calcium, and omega 3
Nutrients to focus on when pregnant:
We’re not sure what herbs are safe during pregnancy, since it’s not ethical to do a study of pregnant women with substances that we’re not sure are safe. So we normally find out what is unsafe through accidents. It is advised not to have herbs and teas that are known to induce labor, such as evening primrose tea, raspberry leaf, some rooibos teas, and castor oil. Honey and cured meats are known to possibly cause botulism. Raw fish and deli meats are a risk of parasites, so everyone must consider whether the health benefits of these foods outweigh the risks to them.
Episode 62: Fertility and early pregnancy
Whether or not you want to conceive, talking about fertility can be helpful to you if you want to have healthier menstruation and hormonal levels.
About morning sickness:
The lower esophageal sphincter is located at the base esophagus and opening to the stomach. It opens to keep your food in the stomach. If it fails, food goes back up the esophagus and causes burning and acid reflux. Morning sickness is caused by massive hormonal shifts in early pregnancy, and it serves the purpose of avoiding teratogens in the diet. Teratogens are anything that can cause deformity or damage to the fetus. Right around the second trimester the fetus is mostly formed and robust, so most morning sickness goes away then. By making choices around food, you can help morning sickness. Any foods that are easy to digest can help (as you don’t get pressure from the small intestines which in turn presses against the esophageal sphincter). Proteins can help tighten the esophageal sphincter (seafood is easier to digest than other meats, as is braised or stewed meats). Ginger, papaya enzymes, and raw almonds all contain digestive enzymes which can also help. Caffeine, alcohol, smoking, chocolate, high fat meals, and peppermint tea can all open up the esophageal sphincter (which you don’t want).
Morning sickness can also be related to low blood sugar in a round about way- low insulin inhibits thyroid production, which greatly impacts estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels (and hormonal imbalances can cause morning sickness).
What are some ways to prepare your body for pregnancy through regulating hormones?
-Nutrient dense paleo diet- B vitamin rich foods (pastured egg yolks, seafood, liver), and omega 3’s.
-Getting as much sunlight as possible or using a light therapy box
-Not going too low or too high carb (you need the right amount of insulin for thyroid production, since insulin is required for the conversion of T4 to T3)
-Gentle exercise rather than a stressful amount of activity for your body
‘Real Food’ by Nina Plank book notes
-The Center for Disease Control have only 1 out of 14 of their recommendations for conception and pregnancy revolving around food. Their recommendation is about getting enough folate to prevent neural tube defects. While this is good advice, there is so much more to making healthy babies.
-Did you know that some evidence tells us that a mother’s nutritional health at the time of conception has more influence on birth weight than her nutrition during pregnancy? (And we know that birth weight is a strong indication of the future health of the child.)
-The work of Weston Price found that essential foods for pregnancy were butter, liver, egg yolks, and seafood. Dairy and seafood were the most prominent fertility foods in traditional diets as they offered the four vital nutrients for pregnancy: Vitamins A & D, Iodine, and Omega 3’s.
-Four Fertility Rules:
1. Be an omnivore: Anthropologists have yet to identify a society living on plant sources alone. B12 is missing in the vegan diet (as the plant form is not bioavailable), as is iron. Vegan diets also lack DHA and EPA (Omega 3’s found mainly in fish). It is difficult to get complete proteins (all amino acids) from non-animal sources.
2. Fat: Traditional fertility foods either are fats (butter) or contain plenty of them (eggs, liver, crab). Fats are included because they are essential for human health and carry the fertility nutrients vitamin A, D, Activator X, and K2 (which is essential for healthy bones and infant growth).
3. Seafood: Omega 3’s and Iodine are found chiefly from the sea. Iodine supports the thyroid, and omega 3 contains DHA which is needed for sperm.
4. “Carbage”: Carbohydrate Garbage lacks B vitamins and vitamin E. We need many nutrients to work together as they’re found in nature. Refined foods contribute to insulin resistance, which causes hormonal disruptions (especially for those with PCOS).
-Getting off the pill: About 80% of women start ovulating by three months and 95% within a year. The pill depletes fertility and pregnancy nutrients (folate, Vit A, B6, C, and zinc), so it can be a good idea to let hormones settle down and let vitamins and nutrients be replenished before conceiving.
-Modern Fertility Diet Tips:
Including a good multi-vitamin can be an option for someone who doesn’t think they can get all the nutrients through food. If so, make sure it has folate (~800 mcg) and iron.
-Whole, raw milk for A, D, K2
-Extra Virgin Olive Oil for Vit E
-Green salad and chicken liver for folate
-Seafood for Iodine
-Red meat for zinc and B12
-Vitamin A is needed to make estrogen and for the differentiation of cells
-Vitamin D is needed to make sex hormones, as well as cell growth and differentiation
-Vitamin K2 puts calcium in the bones and sperm depends on it.
-Vitamin E is known as “the birth vitamin” because it promotes reproductive efficiency and sperm cells. It is needed for a healthy placenta and cell division, and it can help prevent miscarriages.
-*Folate/B Vitamins are important for libido, making sex hormones, and for producing eggs and sperm. Folate deficiency causes devastating defects on brain and spinal cord before you know you’re pregnant.
-Zinc makes sex hormones and eggs, and keeps the thyroid healthy. It is essential for cell division and organ formation. It is needed to absorb folate. It’s especially important for men and making healthy sperm. Oral contraceptives, sugar, trans fats, and cortisol all deplete zinc. ~15-80mg is recommended.
The takeaway? Avoid industrial foods, chemicals, vapors, smoke, pesticides, and all other junk you can put in or on your body. But most importantly, concentrate on the things you can control, such as what foods the baby needs right now, and worry less.
*Note about taking folic acid: Folic acid is a synthetic chemical not found in nature or the body, so it has to be converted to the active form of folates. Many multivitamins use folic acid, which the body has a hard time converting, so you get a bunch of build up which is linked to cancer. You want to make sure your multi has the active form of folate- sometimes it’s abbreviated as L-5-MTHF (which is 5-Methyltetrahydrofolate). The brand name is Metafolin. Make sure the supplement says folate instead of folic acid. The recommended brand from Chris Kresser is ‘Nutrient 950 with Vitamin K’ by Pure Encapsulations.
‘Beautiful Babies’ book by Kristin Michaelis
It is common for traditional fertility diets to begin at least six months prior to conception. The lessons of Dr. Weston A Price found that both men and women ate about ten times the amount of fat soluble vitamins than the standard Westerner. When preparing for pregnancy, they focused on “sacred foods” that were rich in Vitamin A, D, E, K, DHA, arachadonic acid, choline, biotin, and V Vitamins (especially folate).
The Weston A Price Fertility and Pregnancy Diet:
-Fermented cod liver oil supplement: 20,000 IU of Vit A
-1 Quart of whole milk, preferably raw and pasture fed
-2 or more eggs, pastured source
-Additional egg yolks (added to smoothies, etc)
-2 Tb coconut oil
-4 Tb butter, preferably pasture fed cows
-Beef or lamb (with the fat)
-At least 1 cup of bone broth
-Lacto-fermented veggies and drinks
-3-5 oz of liver 1-2x/week
-Fresh seafood 2-4x/week, preferably wild salmon, fish eggs, mollusks, and shellfish
About 1st Trimester Maladies:
Theories on morning sickness-
-Protects babies from toxins
-Adjusting to the flood of hormones
-Low blood sugar
-B12 or B6 deficiency
Preventing swelling and varicose veins-
- about 80-120 g of protein per day
Preventing stretch marks
-saturated and monounsaturated fats
In conclusion, I would like to wrap up this (perhaps overwhelming and definitely somewhat scattered) overview with a solid reminder to keep things in perspective and fun. As Chris Kresser said, “There’s more to health than food, and there’s more to life than health.” While I think it’s important and responsible for one to focus on the many ways possible to help create a happy, health pregnancy and baby, there are many aspects to health and happiness that are not found through food. Worried about eating perfectly for a pregnancy sounds stressful. Remember to give yourself breaks, eat when and what is appealing, and enjoy the process.
Considering that I can only make guesses for what it’s actually like, I would love to hear thoughts and opinions from mothers out there. Did you have a plan for nutrition during pregnancy? How did it work out for you?