Trying to conceive? How to prepare your body for baby
Couples who are yearning to become parents could increase their chances by adding or shunning certain foods and making other lifestyle changes, some experts say.
These changes are especially important for moms-to-be, said a Fargo infertility doctor.
“The most important things you can do to boost your fertility are: eat a healthy diet and normalize your weight as much as you can,” said Dr. Kristen Cain, reproductive endocrinologist at Sanford Health in Fargo.
“Those two things will give women the most benefit if they’re trying to become pregnant.”
Women should eat organic fruits, vegetables and meats, and plenty of whole grains — lean protein and dairy — while avoiding processed foods, she said.
“There are no ‘super-fertility’ foods out there ... A healthy diet makes a much bigger difference.”
A major step toward eating more healthfully is incorporating organically grown foods and fresh produce into your diet, Cain said.
“Organic foods don’t have pesticides, some of which … can affect pregnancy and fertility in men and women,” she said. Fresh produce is full of antioxidants which promote general, as well as reproductive, health, she said.
It’s helpful for your guy to consume them, too. “Antioxidants have been shown to improve sperm quality after three to six months of taking them,” she said.
There are also detriments to fertility that women should consider, Cain said. Excess weight is one of them.
“For a woman who is overweight, whose body mass index is greater than 25, there’s really good evidence that losing 5 to 10 percent of the weight boosts fertility tremendously,” she said, “even if the woman is still heavy after the weight loss.
Eliminating certain foods from your diet improves your chances of conceiving, she said.
Cain recommends avoiding trans-fats that are found in cookies, cakes, kids’ cereals, potato chips and pies, because they “are pro-inflammatory,” she said.
Look instead for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; they’re better for reducing inflammation which has been shown to interfere with ovulation.
“Trans-fats are just bad for you and should be avoided by everyone,” Cain said.
When eating out, women should stay away from French fries which — because they’re cooked at high temperatures — produce a compound called “acrylamide” that has been shown to cause problems with fertility in animals, she said.
Folic acid, iron
The most important thing a woman who’s trying to get pregnant should do is to be sure she’s getting an adequate dose of folic acid, Cain said. “It not only prevents birth defects, it may help people become more fertile.”
Folic acid is available in 400-microgram pills, she said. “One or two of these a day is probably plenty.”
If you’re taking a daily multi-vitamin, check the label to see how much folic acid you are already getting from this source.
“Some women don’t process folic acid as well as others,” she said. “If you have a history of miscarriage or have given birth to a baby with spina bifida, your doctor may prescribe a higher dose of folic acid.”
Although some nutritionists recommend boosting your intake of iron to replace the iron lost during menstruation, Cain said this is not necessary “unless you’re anemic,” as evidenced by a low blood count.
In addition to its weight-lowering potential, exercise is important for women who are trying to conceive, Cain said.
Except immediately after vitro fertilization (IVF), exercise is encouraged in women who are trying to conceive, she said. “Benefits of exercise include stress relief, weight loss and improved stamina for pregnancy and even easier labor.”
“While we wouldn’t advise training for a marathon during fertility treatment … moderate exercise such as walking, dancing, yoga and swimming are all fine.”
Focus on foods
Dark leafy green vegetables and fruits, such as strawberries, oranges and other citrus fruits, are high in folate, a B vitamin that a few studies have shown may improve ovulation, experts say.
In a study, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who ate a lot of plant-based sources of protein, rather than protein from animals, had substantially less likely to have trouble conceiving.
Make sure your diet includes some wild salmon which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may help to regulate reproductive hormones and increase blood flow to the reproductive organs, Cain said.
Women, especially those with irregular periods, seemed to do better, in terms of conception, if they consume full fat rather than low-fat dairy products, Cain said. “We’re not sure why.”
Vitamin D “has gotten a lot of attention” in relation to fertility, Cain said. “This is especially important in North Dakota with our limited sunshine in winter.
“It’s worth trying to get it in the diet or as a supplement,” she said, but a dietary source is preferable because of better absorption.
Alcohol, in moderation, is acceptable when you’re trying to get pregnant, Cain said.
“The magic number is four drinks a week. If you drink more than that, fertility starts to go down.”
Higher rates of drinking — in either men or women — have been shown to lower pregnancy rates, she said.
Reducing alcohol consumption in women and men also improves couples’ chances that their fertility treatments will work, she said.
Caffeine has never been shown to interfere with conception, she said, and there’s no biochemical reason why it should. It “is actually an antioxidant and might theoretically be beneficial,” she said.
“The bottom line for now is drink up, but not to excess.”
Men need not give up alcohol completely, but current recommendations — same as for women — are to keep it to no more than four drinks per week while you’re trying to conceive, Cain said.
For men, certain antioxidant vitamins may help in conception, Cain said. These include vitamin C, zinc, selenium, vitamin E, L-carnitine and CoQ10.
“There are preparations available online that have all these together in a single dose,” she said.
Hot tubs, long bike rides, saunas and even long drives with heated seats “aren’t great for sperm,” she said. More direct and prolonged heat can cause decreased production of normally shaped and fast-swimming sperm, she said.
For the record, the debate about boxers versus briefs has been resolved, she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Men should be aware that their weight plays a role, too, when the couple is trying to conceive, she said.
Male farm workers should be aware that farm chemicals are bad for reproduction, she said. “If your husband can’t avoid exposure to herbicides, pesticides and (similar chemicals),” he should take precautions by wearing respirators, ventilators and protective gear and gloves. “Or plan to do your conceiving in the winter,” she said.
Other health conditions play a role in a couple’s ability to conceive, she said.
“Obesity, and especially diabetes, definitely affect men’s fertility and sexual function.”
She advises men to lose excess pounds and follow the same healthy diet she recommends for women.
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you are planning to conceive:
Focus on eating healthy
- Include more organically grown foods in your diet.
- Consume foods that are high in antioxidants.
- Avoid foods that contain trans-fats (found in products such as cookies, cakes, pies, kids’ cereals and potato chips); look instead for foods with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Get more vitamin D, either through foods or supplements.
- Caffeine has not been shown to interfere with conception and, an antioxidant, may be beneficial. The bottom line for now is drink up, but not to excess.
Optimize your body weight
- If you are overweight (BMI of 25 or higher), try to lose some pounds; even a drop of 5 to 10 percent of total body weight can significantly improve your chances of getting pregnant.
- Cut down on smoking as much as possible; even better, quit. Once there’s a baby in the house, smoking is hazardous.
- A little alcohol is OK, but recommendations are to keep it to less than four drinks per week while you’re trying to conceive. Once you’re pregnant, it’s not a good idea to imbibe.
- Except right after in vitro fertilization, exercise is encouraged — but don’t go overboard. Moderate exercise such as walking, dancing, yoga and swimming are all fine. Swimming is okay as early as a day or two after ovulation because your body has a mucus plug that protects anything that’s happening in the uterus.
Sources: Dr. Kristen Cain, reproductive endocrinologist, Sanford Health, and The Woman Doctor’s Guide (www.womanmdsguide.com)