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Getting Healthy BEFORE You Get Pregnant…..

Getting Healthy BEFORE You Get Pregnant…..      

Maureen McDonnell, RN   
 
Common Sense Approaches to Women’s Health:  This month’s column is on the importance of getting healthy before getting pregnant.   Common sense you say?  Actually, you might be surprised by just how little attention is paid to this concept in our culture.   Having worked with hundreds of children with health and developmental conditions, I’ve seen the amount of effort it takes on the part of their parents to improve the health and or behavior of their child once they are sick or disabled.  Not all illness is preventable of course, but many parents who have worked hard at addressing their child’s nutritional, environmental or medical issues have commented “if I only knew then, what I know now, I would have made different choices.”  So this article is dedicated to them and their tireless efforts to help their kids achieve their full potential and best possible health.  But it is also dedicated to the concept of prevention.  If we as women can do more to get ourselves in optimal health prior to conceiving, we can minimize our risks for illness and maximize our chances for having the healthiest child possible. 
 
Most of us are aware that there is an array of factors at play in the days and weeks immediately following conception that are crucial for the development of the fetus.  A poor diet, tobacco use, environmental toxins, alcohol, drugs etc. all pose a threat to what every woman hopes for…..a healthy baby.   However, what we don’t often consider or discuss (and yet it may be of equal, if not greater significance) is the health status of the mother prior to becoming pregnant.   But times are changing and many savvy individuals contemplating parenthood are educating themselves regarding the role the environment and nutrition play in minimizing complications associated with pregnancy, labor and birth. They also realize that in order to tip the scales in favor of having the healthiest child possible, it makes  sense for both of them to be in an optimal state of health prior to conceiving.                                                                                            
 
Did you know that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that I out of every 6 children born in this country have either a neurological, behavioral or developmental problem?   The CDC also states that 31% of pregnancies are complicated by maternal health issues and 12% of all babies are born prematurely (which greatly increases their risk for developing health and or neurological problems later on.)  (1) The National Research Council in Washington says:  7% of all couples are now sterile, 50% of all pregnancies end in a stillborn, miscarriage, birth defects or a chronic health problem, and finally, in spite of all our medical advances, 7 out of every 1000 US newborns die, (which ranks us 29th, tying us with Poland  and Slovakia for infant mortality)  (2).  I don’t know about you, but I find these statistics startling, more than a little scary, and completely unacceptable!   Good news lies in the fact that emerging science, combined with common sense, provides more tools for our society to change these statistics.   
 
Do I think that every single childhood illness or congenital abnormality can be prevented?  Not exactly…..but I do think in many cases we can shift the odds in favor of a healthier outcome. This is why for years I have half jokingly told my daughters:  ”give me your body for one year prior to getting pregnant, and I may be able to save you from the heartache and stress that so many parents of sick or disabled children know only too well.”   What do I mean when I say “give me your body for a year prior to conceiving?”  What I am suggesting is this:  let me, or some other naturally-oriented health care provider take a good health history including an assessment of your diet and nutritional status, look at levels of heavy metals and other toxins in your system and in your environment, and check to see if there is an overgrowth of yeast or some other intestinal pathogen that might be wreaking havoc on your health.  If there is a history of migraines, fatigue, depression, yeast infections, PMS, acne, constipation etc. I’m proposing we address those issues by utilizing a naturally based, nutritional approach that may include a detoxification program.  My goal for my daughters (and all young women in their child bearing years) is to get them healthy prior to conceiving so they can increase the likelihood of having a great pregnancy, labor, birth and the healthiest baby possible!   
 
Before I get into the specifics of what will help put the odds in favor of an optimal outcome for mom and baby, let me explain a bit about what has changed in our world in the past 60 or so years that may be contributing to the rise in health problems affecting our children.   Around the mid 1940s, exhausted from World War ll, parents of the baby boomers began demanding products that were “convenient.”  As a result, industries began creating more and more items that were derived from plastics and other synthetic materials.  The use of both pesticides and prescription drugs escalated, chemicals in cleaning and personal care products became more prevalent, and processed convenience food became the rage.    Industry and technology were answering the call of the culture by creating better living through better chemistry.  In the 1950s, the first generation of children exposed to these chemicals was  born (I was one of them!).  As we now know, many of these chemicals created for this modern, more convenient lifestyle “bio-accumulate” or build up in our bodies and the higher up on the food chain we eat, the more toxins we accumulate.   To date, the EPA tells us there are over 80,000 chemicals in our air, water and food and 2.2 billion pounds of chemicals are sprayed on our crops annually.  The average American home contains 3-10 gallons of hazardous materials and 85% of the chemicals that are registered have never been tested for impact on the human body. 
 
A report from the CDC (December 2006) found the average American had 116 of the 148 synthetic compounds tested for, including the infamous dioxin, polycyclic hydrocarbons and organochlorine pesticides.  Further studies revealed these same substances were also in human milk, placenta and umbilical cord blood, and in the blood and body fat of newborns.  Phthalates, found in hundreds of products including soft vinyl plastic toys, shampoos, hair spray, nail polish, perfumes, new cars, pharmaceuticals and deodorants are known hormone disrupters that can cause sperm and genital problems in males. They were found in 75% of the human urine tested.   
 
Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, a pediatric neurologist, works with children on the autism spectrum and those with other neurological disorders at Mass General. She is also a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She recently told me:  “In the last several generations, our technology has been ahead of our science.  We have filled the world with new-to-nature substances and we have massively altered our food supply without measuring the health and ecological consequences.  Now it’s time to wake up, take responsibility for our dangerous situation, and put wisdom back into our lives.” 
 
In December 2007, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment’s Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative spoke to this issue by stating:  “Given the established knowledge, protecting children from the neurotoxic environmental exposures…is an essential public health measure if we are to help prevent learning and developmental disorders.”  (3)
 
Before we go on to the good news (which is what we can do to proactively work toward preventing health and developmental problems in our offspring), let me just share some additional information that I found astounding:  Bisphenol A (BPA)  is found in hard plastics including baby bottles, food containers, linings of tin cans and dental sealants. A study from the Environmental California Research and Policy Center 2/27/07 revealed that BPA leached from 5 out of 5 plastic baby bottles tested and all five brands leached BPA at levels found to cause harm in laboratory animals. Yes, you did read that correctly……”leached from baby bottles.” (4) Independent lab tests reported by EWG found levels of BPA in over half of the canned products tested at levels high enough to cause birth defects.  The highest levels were in chicken soup, ravioli and infant formula!  Studies have also shown that children who live closer to agricultural fields sprayed with pesticides have an increased incidence of autism that is directly related to the amount of pesticide usage and the closeness the child lives to the field being sprayed. (5)  
 
A quote from Environmental Health Perspectives (June, 2001) summarizes the issue:  “These recent studies on diesel exhaust, plastics, and pesticides make clear that the full costs of continuing with old technologies and rates of use of toxic materials may well include permanent damage to the gene pool and brains of the youngest generation.  Problems of neurologic development and reproduction that stem from early life exposures will not be reparable later, no matter how much money is available.”
 
Are you ready for an anti-depressant or have you decided to never get pregnant?   I have a better idea…..As women, and especially women of childbearing age, we need to continue to empower ourselves and our partners with information about the health hazards inherent in these chemicals, and minimize our exposure to them.  Additionally, and of utmost importance, we need to boost our nutritional status so we can detoxify more effectively to minimize the damage from those chemicals we can’t avoid.  Although there are no guarantees in life, by taking this type of direct action and adhering to some of the tips listed below, we can help prevent many health problems from developing in ourselves and in our offspring. 
 
15 Tips for Getting Healthy Before You Get Pregnant…
 
1.  Optimal Nutrition: In addition to working with a naturally-oriented health care practitioner for routine tests and monitoring,  one of the best things a woman considering pregnancy can do is give herself six months to a year to “clean up” her diet and lifestyle.  Laying the foundation by putting herself in optimal shape nutritionally prior to conceiving will go a long way in minimizing the chance of miscarriage, or developing other complications of pregnancy and delivery.   Specifically reduce or eliminate alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine and shift from a diet based on processed nutrient-deficient white foods: sugar, white bread, pasta, pizza, bagels etc. to one that contains more organic natural foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean sources of protein, healthy fats etc. (6)   Eating a diet rich in colorful, organically grown vegetables and fruits will provide an adequate intake of antioxidants to fight off the damaging effects of free radicals.  Juicing organic vegetables is a great alternative if one can’t seem to consume the recommended  4 ½  cups of veggies and fruit per day. Avoid all genetically modified food (choose non-GMO) (8).  Also avoid uncooked meats.  
 
2.  Minimize Exposure to Toxins: Do what is reasonable to “green” your home and minimize exposure to toxins in your food, cleaning products, personal care products, etc.   If remodeling is planned and or a new home is being constructed, try to select no-VOC paints, sustainable wood as opposed to composites and resin based products. Allow out-gassing of new materials.  If at all possible: buy a mattress and bedding that is free of PBDEs and Antimony.  (7). The fetus is not as protected by the placenta as we once thought due to its immature and porous blood brain barrier and the exposure pound for pound is greater than for those of adults.   For information on greening your home & life, see the Green This! series of books by Deirdre Imus (http://www.dienviro.com/index1.aspx?BD=19007).  
 
3.  Exercise: Begin or continue an exercise routine. 
 
4.  Weight Control:  Obesity during pregnancy increases the incidences of neural tube defects, diabetes, premature labor, cesarean section, preeclampsia, etc.  In my work with infertility, I’ve observed that getting weight under control (via a healthy diet emphasizing good quality protein, additional zinc and B vitamins, exercise, increased water consumption, additional fiber, essential fatty acids, etc.) can be an effective and inexpensive strategy for enhancing fertility.       
 
5.  Detox: If a woman’s toxic load has been high (has taken many prescriptive, or non-prescriptive medications, has multiple amalgam fillings, or works or lives in a chemically-laden environment), she might want to consider a detoxification or cleansing program like the ones found at www. BlessedHerbs.com. If a detox program alone does not relieve fatigue, migraines, PMS  and or other symptoms associated with being toxic, she may want to consult a physician familiar with nutritional and/or chelation protocols for a more advanced detoxification process. Contact a MD, ND or DO in your area affiliated with either the American Academy of Advancement in Medicine ACAM: www.ACAMnet.org, or ABIHM: American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine www.holisticboard.org or the Institute for Functional Medicine:  www.functionalmedicine.org 
 
6.  Gut Health: If a woman has had a history of yeast infections and or frequent antibiotic usage during her formative years or teens, she may want to consider consulting a physician who is well versed in the treatment of yeast (Candida). A yeast free diet along with herbs and other treatments will help ensure a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in mom which has been shown to positively impact a newborn’s immune system (8). An informative book on the subject is The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates (www.BodyEcology.com). 
 
7.  Dental Amalgams: If a woman has mercury-based amalgam dental fillings, prior to becoming pregnant, she may want consult a dentist familiar with safe procedures for their removal.  To locate an informed dentist associated with The American Holistic Dental Association, check www.holisticdental.org  (9) 
 
8.  Supplements: Also in anticipation of conception, it makes sense to begin taking a natural and comprehensive pre-natal multi-vitamin mineral supplement.  A good, easily absorbed prenatal supplements is Opti-Natal.   Any pre-natal should have at least 800mcg of Folic acid which has been shown to decrease the incidence of Neural Tube Defect up to 70%   Adding a mercury-free source of EFAs (Omega 3s) is also important. DHA is an Omega 3 which influences brain development.   
 
9.  Watch the Fish: Minimize consumption of large fish. For mercury levels of fish check: www.gotmercury.org.   Most fish have 0.2-0.3 mcg of mercury per gram. Sharks, swordfish and tilefish have 1.0mcg/gm.  
 
10.  Test Vitamin D levels and add additional Vitamin D3 if necessary.  Many studies are supporting the use of higher levels of Vitamin D.  For more information,  go to www.VitaminDcouncil.org
 
11.  Vaccines: Discuss with your naturally-oriented health care provider the idea of avoiding the flu shot and any other vaccine for one year prior to conception.  The yearly flu shot, which now includes the new Swine Flu vaccination, contains thimerosal (a mercury-containing preservative).  For more information see Safer Ways to Vaccinate at www.SOKHOP.com  
 
12.  STDs:  STDs are associated with an increase in premature delivery, fetal malformations, neonatal  infections and developmental abnormalities. Avoid Hot Tubs: If you are considering pregnancy or think you might be pregnant, avoid high temperature hot tubs.  If the mother’s core temperature goes higher than 100.4 in the first trimester, it can increase the risk of developing neural tube defects.  
 
13.  Water: Get a good home water filter system and drink from a stainless steel water bottle instead of buying water in plastic. Heated or not, soft plastic bottles release phthalates.  See resource guide for info on best filtration systems below. 
 
14.  Indoor Air: The CDC reports that indoor air pollution is quickly becoming a top health hazard.  Open your windows to create some ventilation. Sleep in a darkened room with no TV or computers. Computers and TVs emit Electro Magnetic Radiation (EMFs). Use cell phones only when necessary and keep the phone in your pocketbook instead of your pocket. (10)
 
15.  Dry Cleaners: Find a “green” dry cleaner.  Perchloroethylene used in dry cleaning may cause tremors, numbness, and is associated with higher levels of coma and death due to respiratory paralysis. A Consumer Reports study concluded 1/6700 will get cancer from wearing PERC cleaned clothing once per week. (11)  
 
For a complete resource guide on organic, personal care, household products, lawn care alternatives, water filtration systems and more, go to http://www.stocktonfp.com/Resource-Guide.pdf  
 
References: 
 
1. www.cdc.gov/hceh/dls/report
2. MacDorman, et al, Recent Trends in Infant Mortality in the US www.cdc.gov/nchsi/databrief/db09.htm
3. www.iceh.org/pdfs/LDDI/LDDIStatement.pdf
4. Exposure of the US Population to Bisphenol A and 4-terriary-octyphenol: 2003-2004, Environmental Health Perspectives; Volume 116; Number 11, January 11, 2008 WWW.EWG.ORG/reports/bisphenola/execsumm.php
5. Maternal residence Near Agricultural Pesticide Applications and Autism spectrum Disorders Among Children in the California Central Valley. Environmental Health Perspectives; July 30, 2007Molecular Psychiatry, November 10, 2005
6. Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides.  Environmental Health Perspectives; February 2006.and Organic Foods vs Supermarket Foods: Element Levels; J of Appl. Nutrition, 45 [1], 1993 35
7. Associations between indoor environmental factors and parental-reported autistic spectrum disorders in children 6-8 years of age. NeuroToxicology. Available online 2/10/09
8. Perez, PF et al, Bacterial imprinting of the neonatal immune system lessons from maternal cells.  Pediatrics, March 2007:119(3)e724-32
9. FDA Presentation: An Evaluation of Dental Amalgam Mercury Release and Corresponding toxicology Concerns, Boyd Haley, Ph.D. September 7, 2006
10.  Resources regarding the biological effects of EMF’s August 2007 (available on www.bioinitiative.org), and the 2009 special EMF issue of the Journal of Pathophysiology.Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution, Camilla Rees, Magda Havas, PhD
11 Consumer Reports study in 1996 concluded 1/6700 will get cancer from wearing PERC cleaned clothing once per week. Dry Cleaning Alternatives online; http://consumerreports.org accessed March 16, 2007
 
 
maureenmcdonnellThe author: Maureen McDonnell has been a registered nurse for 33 years (in the fields of childbirth education, labor and delivery, clinical nutrition, and pediatrics.).  She is the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences and is the co-founder of children’s green health expos: Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet.  She presently provides health consultations for women and children with James Biddle, MD at Asheville Integrative Medicine.  Her published articles including What Can Be Done to Prevent Autism Now!, and Safer Ways to Vaccinate can be found at  www.SOKHOP.com.  Maureen is also the owner of Nutritionist’s Choice multi vitamin:  www. NutritionistsChoice.com.   She is a parent and step-parent to six grown children, has four granddaughters and lives with her husband Hanson near Asheville, North Carolina.   
 
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