Angela Stengler, ND
Once couples learn the good news--theyâ??re pregnant-they usually scramble to make sure their lifestyle is as healthy it can be for the baby.
Once couples learn the good news-they’re pregnant-they usually scramble to make sure their lifestyle is as healthy it can be for the baby. It is equally important that the woman and man are in tip-top shape before conception takes place.
The first step is making sure the woman is at her ideal body weight. I see many women for reproductive assistance. After reviewing their medical history, most of them claim that their obstetrician or gynecologist made no mention to them regarding their weight (this includes women who are underweight as well as overweight).
A woman who starts her pregnancy markedly underweight is more likely to deliver prematurely or to have a baby of low birth weight (even if she gains weight normally during pregnancy). A few extra kilograms do not seem to cause difficulties, but a woman who is obese before conception is more likely to develop complications such as gestational diabetes and delivery difficulties that could jeopardize both the baby and herself. This does not mean an overweight woman should diet when she becomes pregnant! It does mean that if a woman needs to lose weight she should do so before she conceives.
What is the best way to lose weight? Any diet that focuses on lots of vegetables, fish, lean poultry, organic dairy products, whole grains, plenty of water and regular exercise. Eliminate pasta, crackers, chips, cakes, muffins and all other simple comfort carbohydrate foods that add hydrogenated fats and refined sugar to the diet. And stay away from artificial sweeteners!
Certain key vitamins and minerals, especially folic acid, calcium and iron (see below) are critical for pregnancy and may be lacking in the typical North American diet. Most obstetricians and midwives today recommend a pre-natal vitamin before conception takes place.
Folic acid, a B-complex vitamin, works along with vitamin B12 to promote the formation of healthy red blood cells in the mom. Dark green veggies, legumes and whole grains are all sources of folic acid. Fish, eggs and milk products are natural sources of vitamin B12. The recommended daily allowance for folic acid is 400 micrograms (mcg) daily for women (800 mcg during pregnancy). Folic acid supplements before conception may decrease the incidence of neural tube defects; it is important to start your vitamins before you conceive.
Calcium is usually supplemented during pregnancy (in addition to what is found in the pre-natal vitamin) and is crucial for the development of your baby’s bones and tooth buds. If adequate calcium intake is not maintained, the woman will be calcium deficient and may increase her future risk for osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor or midwife about how much calcium you should be taking.
Few women start pregnancy with enough iron stored in their bodies. If a woman has a history of iron deficiency anemia, it is important that she get her blood checked to make sure she is not anemic before pregnancy. Iron is necessary to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. This is especially important when a woman’s blood volume approximately doubles and her body must produce extra hemoglobin to ensure that she and her baby have adequate amounts. Although during pregnancy the woman’s body is able to absorb more iron from food, it still may not absorb an adequate amount. Your doctor or midwife will periodically check your iron status.
One of the most important essential fatty acids is docosahexanoic acid (DHA). This fatty acid plays a pivotal role in the brain and retina development. One of the reasons this long-chain fatty acid has attracted so much attention is because a deficiency has been associated with visual impairment in offspring of rhesus monkeys.
Studies confirm that the most critical period of life for providing omega-3 fatty acids (including DHA) is during pregnancy and lactation (breast-feeding) in early infancy. If a pregnant or lactating woman is eating fish consistently (at least three times a week), there is no need to supplement her diet with DHA. If, however, she does not regularly consume fish, then I recommend she add 2,000 mg daily of fish oil to her vitamin program. Quality salmon oil products are available for purchase at health food stores and pharmacies. Make sure the product you buy is free of pesticides and heavy metals. Reputable supplement companies can tell you if they screen their fish oil for these contaminants. Talk to your doctor or midwife before taking any supplements.
Smoking, Alcohol and Caffeine
Stop smoking before you become pregnant. Women who smoke have an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature or low birth weight babies. Crib death is also more common among babies whose mothers smoke.
Some studies suggest that children of mothers who smoked during pregnancy score lower on neurological and intellectual tests than those of non-smokers and are more likely to be hyperactive. Secondhand smoke is also considered a health hazard to both the mom and baby. The timing is crucial because the baby is most vulnerable in the early weeks of intrauterine life, before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
Heavy drinking has been associated with miscarriage, low birth weight and birth defects including mental retardation. While the safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has not been agreed upon, most scientists believe that an occasional drink is not harmful to the pregnancy but heavy drinking, especially in the early weeks of pregnancy, is dangerous. All medical researchers agree that consuming large quantities of alcohol in concentrated periods (known as binge drinking) of time is extremely dangerous to the baby at every stage of development.
Most doctors and midwives agree that caffeine consumption should be limited to one or two cups of coffee daily. If you are presently drinking more than four or five cups daily (coffee, tea or soda that contains caffeine) then you should start cutting back months before conception.
Keeping fit during pregnancy is extremely important. Good muscle tone makes a pregnant woman feel better and it helps her prepare for labor. A healthy fitness program also ensures good bowel function, aids in sleep and helps a mom regain her figure more easily after pregnancy. Exercise also helps reduce stress and alleviates anxiety and depression.
It's safer for a woman to continue exercising during pregnancy when she is already in shape and familiar with an exercise program. The safest and most beneficial exercises for pregnant and newly-delivered mothers are brisk walking, swimming and stationary cycling. Tennis and jogging in moderation are also safe as long as the woman is active in these sports before pregnancy. Start an exercise program before you conceive. You will be thankful you did–especially when labor begins, which is an athletic event in itself!