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Parenthood begins long before you conceive. Start the journey now by creating the healthiest, happiest conditions to welcome a new life.
Track your conception
"Understanding your own unique conception window is so important because once released at ovulation, your egg only survives in the body for around 24 hours," says nutritionist, naturopath and family planning consultant Tasha Jennings.
Fortunately, sperm can live for three to five days inside the female body, so if you know your ovulation time you can start your baby making in the days leading up to it, allowing the sperm to get to the party in plenty of time.
She adds: "I use temperature charting with my patients, as hormones affect our basal body temperature." She recommends using a menstrual cycle chart - available online or in apps - and recording your temperature daily on waking. "Temperature should be lower in the first half of your cycle, spike higher at ovulation and remain high for the remainder of your cycle," she says.
In your conception window you should also notice increased cervical mucus – often referred to as 'egg white'. "You should feel moister and possibly see some discharge on toilet paper," says Jennings.
Key nutrients to support pre-conception & pregnancy
Certain nutrients play an important role in supporting conception, "These are folate, choline, iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12," says Jennings.
Folate, or vitamin B9, is important for healthy DNA synthesis and a pregnancy can't be sustained without it, she says. Folate's synthetic form, folic acid, can be taken in supplement form. Jennings recommends combining it with folinic acid for additional support through pre-conception and pregnancy.
Meanwhile, vitamin B12 and iron are folate's co-workers in the synthesis of DNA.
The final must-have is Vitamin D. "It's involved in the regulation of over 2000 genes and deficiency is linked to many health conditions ," says Jennings.
Up your Omega-3s
Some oils really are good ones – especially if you're pregnant. Omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) have been found to be essential for a baby's neurological and early visual development. Also, a new Cochrane Review last year indicated that an increased intake of Omega-3s, either from food or supplements, could reduce the incidence of preterm birth (before 37 weeks) and very preterm birth (before 34 weeks).
With Australia's premature birth rate on the rise, this is encouraging news.
Omega-3s are found in fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and anchovies, but it can be hard to obtain the required amount from food alone, especially with concerns around mercury in some types of fish restricting how much and what kind you can safely eat during pregnancy. To ensure sufficient Omega-3s, many health professionals recommend boosting your dietary intake with a good quality fish oil supplement.
Maintaining your healthy body weight
Maintaining healthy weight is a major conception factor. Our fat cells, says Jennings, produce estrogen, which in turn affects your menstrual cycle. "When you're overweight, your fat stores produce more estrogen than necessary—which can lead to irregular cycles, heavy bleeding and irregular ovulation," she says. "And when you're underweight, your body produces less estrogen, which can also impact ovulation. If you have too little body fat, your cycles can stop altogether."
Weight isn't just a female issue. "In men, over weight is associated with lower testosterone and challenges with sperm quality, " says Jennings.
The 'fight or flight' stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, can inhibit the release of hormones responsible for stimulating egg development and ovulation, as well as the main pregnancy hormone, progesterone. "When we're under stress, our body directs focus towards keeping our bodies healthy and alive," says Jennings. "Reproductive function gets pushed down the priority list."
Jennings recommends nourishing your nervous system with nutrients such as magnesium and B vitamins, as well as herbs like withania, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm and Siberian ginseng.
"Meditation is also powerful," she adds. "Even as little as five minutes a day can make a significant impact on stress levels."
Stress can be self-perpetuating, too, she cautions. "The basic message is: don't get stressed about being stressed!
Clean up your cosmetics
Reducing your toxic load can have a great impact on your conception wellbeing. As well as eating as many organic whole foods as possible, look out for household and beauty products containing Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), which can interfere with your natural hormone function. These include BPA, often found in plastic food and drink containers, and phthalates, used to enhance fragrances and on the ingredients lists of many perfumes, air fresheners, hair products, cosmetics, skin lotions and nail polishes.
Says Jennings: "A review by Choice concluded there is growing scientific evidence that even at lower levels of exposure, phthalates and BPA affects your ability to conceive."
Eat more leafy greens
"When it comes to conception and pre-conception, do as your grandma told you and eat your greens!" says Tasha Jennings. Greens contain folate, which is fundamental to healthy conception and pregnancy, and also deliver supporting vitamins and nutrients including B6, B2, B12 and iron. For optimal nutritional benefit, avoid over cooking and instead keep your greens raw or lightly steamed for better folate levels.
Get more sleep
"Disrupted sleep affects all the key conception hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, lutenizing hormone and leptin," says Jennings.
To avoid this, and to boost the powerful antioxidant melatonin, she recommends her patients try to follow their natural circadian rhythm. "For example, dim the lights inside as the light starts to fade outside. Stay away from your devices and other screens at least an hour before bed. Enjoy a relaxing herbal tea or listen to a guided meditation before bed and ideally go to bed before 10pm."
Tasha Jennings is a naturopath and nutritionist helping proactive women and couples optimise their ability to conceive to create healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.
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Always read the label. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Supplements can only be of assistance if dietary intake is inadequate. Follow the directions for use. ^Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for 0-6 months.