A good diet and healthy lifestyle before and during pregnancy is all you need to make a healthy baby. However, some people like to tick every box and then some. If you have the luxury of time, start implementing positive health changes 3 months before you plan to conceive. Following are some tips to help baby and mum during these interesting and exciting months of pregnancy, also some advice on preconception care for Dad. The herbs and supplements recommended below are safe to take during pregnancy.
What to do
- Even before your baby is a glint in anyone’s eye, antioxidants can help improve the health of both sperm and egg. Antioxidants are found in good food. Naturally coloured fruit and vegetables are best. Employ the old adage ‘eat like a rainbow’, ensuring a broad range of antioxidants as each of the different colours bring their own addition to the table, literally. Think broccoli, beetroot, pumpkin, carrots, kale, Asian greens, rocket, berries, red grapes (including the seed), turmeric and green tea.
- Fish and seafood. An excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein, but also one of the few reliable sources of iodine.
- One for the guys. Omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, are especially needed for the healthy development of the nervous system, as well as cognition and eyesight in babies. They also increase movement and flexibility of the sperm, which makes swimming to their destination easier. Sources high in omega-3 include chia seeds, walnuts and fish. Avoid fish that may contain high levels of mercury, such as swordfish, shark and blue-fin tuna. (Most tuna sold in tins and in general is yellow fin and is not a great mercury risk.) This warning applies to men as well as women.
If either parent are allergic to fish or do not like it, or are vegetarian, then omega-3 rich algae supplementation is recommended.
The general recommendation prior to pregnancy (for women) is a maximum of 1–2 glasses a day and none during pregnancy. The time of most risk to the baby is the first few weeks after conception, which is often the time many women don’t even realise they may be pregnant. For this reason, it is best to go easy if you are planning to have a baby.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is one of the potential risks for the baby, but this mainly occurs when the mother drinks a large amount of alcohol, not a glass or 2, so don’t beat yourself up if you find out you are pregnant after drinking a glass of champers. After all, women in Italy and France routinely have a glass or 2 of wine with meals throughout their pregnancies, and there is no evidence that their babies have suffered.
- Folic acid (also known as folate) is often recommended as a preconception vitamin, as if it is deficient in the diet, the baby has a slightly higher risk of having spina bifida (a condition where the spinal column does not fully develop). Although this deficiency has been well researched, it makes sense that all the essential vitamins and minerals are necessary for the health of the unborn baby.
- For women, I recommend taking a good multivitamin before pregnancy, during and while breastfeeding. Look for one that contains at least 400 ug folic acid, iodine and zinc. In addition, take extra fish oil and calcium later in the pregnancy.
- Mum needs magnesium, especially in the last trimester when leg and back aches are worse. It can also make for an easier birth.
- Both parents need to check their vitamin-D status and take this vitamin if deficient or on the low side of normal.
- For fathers, take a male multivitamin daily with added fish oil and zinc as you need these in greater amounts than can be supplied by the multi.
- Iodine is required by the thyroid glands to produce thyroid hormones. A deficiency of iodine during pregnancy may result in poor physical and mental development of the baby, and worst-case scenario is cretinism. If the soil is deficient in iodine, so will the food that is grown in it. Government public policy has been to add iodine to salt, however, with the rise of gourmet salts, which do not contain iodine, iodine deficiency has become more common. Seaweed, seafood and eggs contain iodine. Try 220 ug during pregnancy and 270 ug while breastfeeding.
- Iron is necessary for haemoglobin to carry oxygen around the body and to the unborn baby. Iron is not necessary to take unless a blood test has shown that you are low. However, if you are low in iron, a supplement is a must. If you become constipated taking regular iron tablets, the herbal iron tonics are good and do not cause this side effect.
- The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are pretty much only found in seafood. They are required for a healthy nervous system, cognition and eyesight. If you don’t plan on eating 3 servings of fish each week, it is a good idea to take a supplement containing these nutrients. Try 1–2 g daily.
- For years, it has been an assumption that a woman’s health is the only focus for the health of a baby. However, recently, research has shown that the father’s health, or at least the health of his sperm, is at least as important as mum’s. Testes produce sperm at a rate of 100 million per day in a healthy male, with 85 million sperm per ml of semen. The process from go to ‘whoa there’ takes approximately 75 days. If you are not as healthy as you could be, and you are planning a baby, this gives you around 3 months to clean up your act.
- There are many male multivitamin tablets available that contain all the nutrients mentioned below. The well-known preconception vitamin for women, folate, which is responsible for cell division, is also essential for sperm development.
- Zinc is vital for sperm production and the creation of testosterone.
- Ever since the late 1970s, vitamin C has been known and recommended to improve sperm formation and viability.
- Selenium, a mineral and antioxidant in short supply in Australian soils, has been found in several studies to increase sperm motility and protect sperm from free-radical damage.
- L-carnitine can also be useful, especially for healthy fatty-acid production that can help create healthy sperm.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are important for sperm health. If you don’t eat a lot of fish, it is worth taking a supplement of 2–3 g of fish oil daily. A multivitamin cannot supply this quantity without the tablet becoming humungous.
- A good female multivitamin containing folic acid, zinc and iodine in addition to 2–3 g of fish oil is recommended. As is 1000 mg of calcium in the last trimester and during breastfeeding.
Some common conditions during pregnancy
- Reflux is a common symptom of pregnancy, particularly as the baby grows and presses on the stomach. Eat smaller meals and take a teaspoon of slippery elm powder before each meal.
- The herbs meadowsweet, peppermint, chamomile and ginger are also helpful for reflux and are absolutely fine to be taken during pregnancy. Take a few drops of tincture in water before meals or drink in a cup of herbal tea after each meal.
- The hormone progesterone increases during pregnancy and has the effect of slowing down the movement of the bowel. This explains why many women experience constipation even quite early in their pregnancy. The up-side of this slower movement is the increased absorption of minerals such as zinc and iron.
- Take 2–3 tablespoons of psyllium husks daily and increase water consumption to 2 litres daily.
Haemorrhoids and varicose veins
- Piles and varicose veins are basically the same thing, just located in different parts of the body. They occur when veins become distended and engorged. There is nearly always a genetic tendency, and being pregnant can force the issue.
- Haemorrhoids may occur during and often after a natural delivery. Take a teaspoon of slippery elm powder twice a day. It can help heal the area. The gentle fibre slippery elm comes into its own in the treatment of piles. Take 3 tablets or a teaspoonful of the powder each night. If you have a stubborn case of piles, slippery elm powder should become part of your life.
- Psyllium husks are a soluble fibre supplement that will keep the stool soft and easy to pass, without aggravating the pile. Take 2 tablespoons daily, along with a large glass of water.
- For varicose veins in particular, if possible, avoid standing for extended periods of time. Don’t cross your legs. Exercise regularly; swimming is particularly good. At some time each day, but best at the end of the day, lie with your legs elevated, up the wall if you are able, allowing blood to circulate back to the heart.
- Eat foods containing the bioflavoids including the pith of citrus fruits, cherries, berries, rye, rosehip tea and buckwheat.
- Quercetin and rutin are bioflavonoids, both excellent for healing and repairing veins. Quercetin relieves inflammation, while rutin acts to strengthen blood vessel walls.
- Calcium fluoride (calc. fluor.) and silicea are tissue salts that are good for strengthening vein walls. Take before and during pregnancy.
- Morning sickness may occur at any time of the day, and although it usually abates by the end of the first trimester, it can last the full term. Take heart – there is some evidence to suggest that morning sickness means less likelihood of miscarriage and a healthy baby.
- Eat small meals regularly, including before you get out of bed in the morning. Try a plain arrowroot biscuit or a slice of dry toast on your bedside table to nibble before you get up.
- Ginger is very effective. Take as a tea or tablets every day.
- Raspberry leaf tea or in tablet form is often recommended later in the pregnancy, but is also effective for morning sickness.
- Lose excess kilos before becoming pregnant. Apart from the fact that being overweight makes it more difficult to conceive (for men and women), many women put on more than the recommended 12 kg per pregnancy. Overweight can increase risk of high blood pressure and diabetes during pregnancy.
- Quit smoking.
- For optimal sperm motility and production, testicular temperature should generally be 2–4°C lower than body temperature. For this reason (and to be fashion-forward) ditch those tight-fitting trousers and underpants.
At a glance
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruit and protein.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Lose weight.
- Stop smoking.
- Stress less and guys, loosen those pants!
- Don’t rush this stage of your life. It is a time to enjoy.