You’ve accomplished the checklist of preconception changes: Nutrient-rich dietary improvements, a well-sourced prenatal, and you’re even doing your best to stay hydrated. But what about mindset, toxins, and lifestyle in relation to fertility?
With so much focus on diet and supplements in the preconception period, these well-researched fertility influences are often overlooked.
Mindset and Fertility
Striving for a picture-perfect conception, pregnancy, and postpartum period can, paradoxically, lead to a hurtful mindset.
We all have experiences that create unique weaknesses and limitations to grow through. We might deal with past traumas or abuse, an addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or even our job or exercise routine.
Additionally, we may have accessibility issues connected to socioeconomic status or local food availability, or regional toxin exposures due to living in an urban area or a heavily sprayed agricultural zone.
We all live with vastly different life lessons and influences in these areas.
Cultivating a healthy and balanced mindset means working on accepting and maybe even feeling grateful for our experiences while seeing each day as a new opportunity to learn and grow beyond our current boundaries.
Do your best while preparing to have a baby. Keep striving, but try not to judge yourself or let other people’s judgmental attitudes hold power over you.
Practically, this translates to stress reduction and a mental and emotional shift toward gratitude and forgiveness. But in the ways that work for you.
For instance, maybe laughter is the way you love to relax. In one small study, women exposed to medical clowning experienced a 36.4% pregnancy rate after IVF-ET versus the control group, who experienced only a 20.2% success rate (1).
The study is small, but the effects of laughter are established. The field of psychoneuroimmunology examines the connections between psychological influences and our nervous and immune systems. And study after study has shown that laughter is fantastic for us (2, 3).
So if meditation isn’t your thing, that’s ok. Try laughing, walking, jumping jacks, painting, collaging, or learning a new language.
Lifestyle and fertility go hand in hand, but shifting our mindset is bio-individual.
For more on mindset and fertility, check out this fantastic write-up and podcast from Dr. David Burns as he works with a couple experiencing infertility.
Toxins and Fertility
The quest to reduce toxic exposures is not a quest for purity or a measure of how good a person or a parent you will be. Instead, calmly and practically reducing toxic exposures to the best of your ability (without going crazy in the process) means being a responsible and level-headed parent aware of living in a beautiful but imperfect world.
Tobacco is contaminated with lead and cadmium, toxic metals that can accumulate in the developing fetus and cause nutritional deficiencies and developmental problems.
Lead exposure during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. Babies born to mothers who smoke or are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to suffer from low birth weight, respiratory problems, and succumb to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Exposure to smoke (active or passive) causes increased oxidative stress and depletion of nutrients such as vitamins C and E.
There is a common misconception that using e-cigarettes is a safer option. But growing research shows that vaping during pregnancy has similar risks as tobacco smoke (4).
Having an occasional glass of wine with dinner or a cold beer on a hot summer day is not problematic for most people.
However, for those wishing to become pregnant, avoiding most alcohol most of the time can be a deciding factor in conception.
Even moderate amounts of alcohol (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) can have an impact. Specifically, moderate alcohol consumptions increase estrogen and decrease progesterone in pre-menopausal females—not ideal hormonal changes to optimize the chances of a successful pregnancy (5).
In males, alcohol can lead to decreases in testosterone and sperm production with increases in estrogen. It may also contribute to testicular atrophy. In moderate drinkers, the most common issue is a change in sperm shape and size (6).
It is well known that alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause varying degrees of harm to the developing fetus, recognized as fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
During pregnancy, alcohol can deplete critical nutrients such as B vitamins, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and molybdenum. It can contribute to liver toxicity, blood sugar imbalances, sleep disturbances, and even DNA damage due to ethanol metabolites linked to the risk of miscarriage.
Home and Body Products
Home cleaning sprays and polishes, body products such as body wash, shampoo and conditioner, and all the specialty care products in between can contribute an almost unbelievable amount of toxic burden to our bodies (7). Compounds such as metals, pesticides, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and even “fragrances“ disrupt hormonal signaling and can be passed on to our babies via the umbilical cord and breastmilk.
Most people use unnecessary items such as fabric softeners, air fresheners, dryer sheets, and perfume. So eliminating these can make a significant difference in toxic load. Simple cleaning solutions like vinegar, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide are remarkably affordable, effective, and safe.
A complete overhaul of your home and body care routine takes time and effort but is more accessible and more affordable than you might imagine. By taking small steps, you can ensure that you keep moving towards your goal of a healthy conception.
Essential Oils: Proceed with Caution
Essential oils are potent plant compounds with many applications in natural medicine, DIY body care, and cleaning products. However, the market for essential oils has exploded in recent years. Many of us have been inundated by misinformation and profit-driven recommendations for excessive use.
Use the guidelines below to navigate the world of information on essential oils:
- Try to develop a holistic mindset around essential oils and the plants they come from. Cultivate your relationship with herbs, and learn to use them in more traditional forms such as decoctions, infusions, and teas. When we stay closer to whole plant forms, we enjoy a wider variety of synergistic compounds and are less likely to induce hypersensitivities.
- While many distributors of essential oils have genuine testimonials and the best intentions, it is important to ask ourselves where a person’s information comes from and what qualifications they have to make personalized healthcare recommendations. Many highly trained/experienced aromatherapy practitioners and academic institutions express much greater caution with essential oils based on decades of research and experience. They tend to advocate lower total usage and more significant dilution. This is not because they do not understand the power of essential oils, but, on the contrary, they are demonstrating appropriate respect for this powerful medicine.
- While many companies and individuals producing or selling essential oils offer quality education on their products, it is crucial to prioritize information from sources that are not selling the product and do not have a direct financial conflict of interest.
- If you use essential oils, talk with a qualified aromatherapist about which oils to avoid during preconception. Some oils can adversely affect hormonal balance, uterine contractility, and more. Never take essential oils internally, and use any pregnancy-safe EOs with care and respect for their intensity and power. In other words, one or two drops of a safe EO in a homemade non-toxic cleaning spray or diluted in a bottle of shampoo are very different from diffusing them and applying multiple drops directly to your skin.
For more information on essential oils in preconception and pregnancy:
- International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists Guidelines for Pregnancy
- National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy: Safety Sheet (see section on pregnancy)
- Beginner’s Guide To Essential Oils Part 1
- Beginner’s Guide To Essential Oils Part 2
- Consuming Essential Oils Responsibly
Mercury in Make-up and More
Thimerosal is a preservative and anti-microbial that is 50% ethylmercury. It’s a potent neurological and epigenetic toxicant and has a cumulative effect when absorbed, and the developing fetus is particularly susceptible to damage from mercury exposure. Did you know that as long as it’s under 65 parts per million and if it is classified as an “inactive ingredient,” the FDA allows thimerosal in cosmetics, eye drops, ear drops, and other OTC and RX products for children and adults? This article lists some of the products which still contain mercury.
Do your best to avoid these products in the preconception period. You’ll learn more about mercury’s impact on fertility later in this blog series.
Plastic Food Containers
If you microwave food in plastic containers, start creating a new habit—transfer the food to glass or ceramic dishware. The heating of plastic causes chemicals in the containers to leech into your food, and these compounds are especially detrimental to fertility health. This article from Scientific American does a great job of explaining more.
The materials that make up your pots and pans can also increase your body’s burden. Heat, acidity, and fat can react with toxic materials and make your food toxic, too.
Here are a few things to look out for:
- Aluminum is a neurotoxicant but remains common in cookware. I recommend avoiding it, even in anodized form.
- Non-stick (Teflon, etc.) pots and pans are incredibly toxic and disrupt the endocrine system. Please watch the movie “Dark Waters” to learn more.
- Stainless steel pots and pans are generally safe for cooking, but they may not be appropriate if you have a nickel allergy. Those with nickel allergies will need certified nickel-free stainless steel. These are typically labeled as 400-series or 18/0 stainless steel.
- Carbon steel is a modern choice that seems promising as an alternative to non-stick cookware. It needs to be seasoned but is lighter than cast iron.
- Cast iron is generally safe and a versatile material that can be used on the stovetop and oven. However, if you have iron overload (hemochromatosis), it may be best to avoid it, especially with acidic foods. It’s not dishwasher safe and does need to be seasoned from time to time.
- Enameled cast iron, such as Le Creuset, is stable and safe when properly cared for.
- Glass pots and pans are generally safe. You’ll want to make sure that you’re using clear glass or, if using colored glass, that it’s certified safe (for example, it meets EU safety standards and/or doesn’t have a CA Prop 65 warning label on the product package). Older colored glass materials may be sources of lead, cadmium, or other heavy metals.
- The same standards that apply to glass cookware and bakeware also apply to crockpots and earthenware materials.
At my house, we cook with stainless steel, cast iron, glass, and earthenware.
If you have vintage cookware or a set of old china, you can purchase lead-testing swabs at your local hardware store. When used safely and according to the package instructions, these can be an excellent tool for assessing the safety of materials with economic or emotional value.
Lifestyle and Fertility
Our lifestyle encompasses our habits, our relationships with friends and family, and how we interact with the world. The three lifestyle and fertility connections are movement, sleep, and community.
You can exercise, but formal movement patterns aren’t mandatory for fertility optimization.
For instance, even a 10-minute walk can increase the chances of becoming pregnant for some women, while zealous overexercising can adversely affect the reproductive system (8).
Balance is key. The right amount of movement for you will help you feel focused, rested, and capable in your body while overexercising manifests as rapid weight loss, low BMI, irregular periods, constant fatigue, or feeling “on edge” or emotionally imbalanced. Additionally, if your workouts interfere with socialization or hobbies or become the focus of compulsive thinking, they may negatively affect your fertility.
In men, sperm parameters such as number, concentration, and velocity were better in those who exercised for one hour, three times per week, versus men who engaged in more vigorous, frequent exercise (9).
Water sports are a fun way to get active, while others enjoy bowling, gardening, or jumping on a trampoline. Traditional exercises like running and weight lifting can be fulfilling, but if these aren’t right for you, get creative to get moving.
Quality sleep and fertility are closely linked via the circadian, nervous, and endocrine systems. Most of our knowledge about this connection comes from research on shift workers.
Females who work rotating shifts or irregular hours may have an increased risk of menstrual irregularities, miscarriage, and low birth weight (10). And it has been observed that too little or too much sleep in men might decrease fertility (11).
Do your best to sleep seven to eight hours in a cool, dark room. And keep consistent hours: it’s best to regularly go to bed around 10 PM and wake at 6 AM versus staying up late and sleeping in on the weekends.
The people around you will ideally be a source of emotional, mental, and physical support in your goal of conception. In fact, one controlled experimental study found that in couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization, a supportive social environment significantly lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to couples who did not experience supportive interactions (12).
Although finding a close-knit group of friends and acquaintances can be difficult, do your best to create this in the preconception period. Meet-up groups, online forums, and interest-based classes like embroidery, kayaking, or a community kickball league are ways to meet people near you who will directly or indirectly provide support and bolster your fertility journey.
- https://www.umass.edu/news/article/women-history-pregnancy-losses-walking / https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/33/7/1291/4965834