Our children's health starts in the womb
For the nine months you and your baby share a body, they’re being influenced by your food, exercise and even your stress levels. Being as healthy as you can during your pregnancy is the best preventative medicine you can give your little one, even before they’re born.
Latest research into preconception health focuses on something called epigenetics. We’ve always thought that our genes were set in stone, and to a certain extent they are. But science is showing us that the way our genes behave (or express themselves) is not so set in stone. That expression can be altered by exposure to certain things and environments. The DNA remains the same, but it acts differently, that’s called epigenetics. One area of research is pregnancy and specifically how the womb environment effects offspring’s gene expression. A tragic illustration of this was the Dutch famine of 1944. The Nazi occupied western Netherlands was highly rationed and eventually cut off from food supply. Malnourished pregnant women developed a change in their genes that produced a change in the expression of their children’s genes. This change caused the offspring to be predisposed genetically to cardiovascular disease, kidney problems, diabetes, obesity and other health problems. All despite having plenty of food and good nutrition themselves. The babies of these malnourished women were, as expected, a smaller than normal birth weight, but interestingly their children were also smaller than normal. The research done into these women, their babies and grandchildren was the first of it’s kind, and has led to more understanding of how important maternal nutrition is to the health of our offspring, and the health of their offspring too.
Did you know the eggs and sperm you conceive with are formed up to 100 days before conception? For this reason three to four months of preparation is ideal to ensure the healthiest eggs and sperm possible. This doesn’t have to mean you and your partner live on green juice and veggie sticks for months, just that you both eat healthily and take a moderate approach to alcohol.
If you suspect your nutrient levels are sub – optimal, consider really focusing on getting lots of veggies and minimising substances that rob us of our vitamins and minerals (think coffee, alcohol and sugar…sorry!). It’s worth doing considering the research.
In 1978 the Forsight Center in the UK did some groundbreaking research about fertility and the reduction of miscarriages and foetal health problems. Their approach was based on what we now call ‘preconception care’ and involved diet, supplementation and lifestyle measures that would correct any deficiencies in parents before they conceived. The results were quite astounding. They found that over 75% of couples with fertility issues went on to have healthy babies. Additionally, they worked with high risk couples over a period of 10 years, and were able to reduce the rate of birth defects in that group to 0.47%. The national average in the UK is 6%. Food for thought.
Getting the basics right
You’ve probably heard about the importance of folic acid for at least 3 months pre pregnancy. Folic acid is a type of B vitamin and also referred to as B9 or folate. It’s an important nutrient for, among other things, rapid cell division and therefore required in larger amounts during pregnancy when our bodies are busy dividing cells like there’s no tomorrow. Neural tube defects are the most frank sign of this deficiency, but it’s likely less severe issues arise with milder deficiencies. Your doctor will prescribe a folic acid from the pharmacy. And remember your food sources too! Green leafy vegetables, legumes, liver and nuts are the best source of folic acid in food.
Iodine is an important mineral for the functioning of the thyroid gland, which governs growth and development. From conception through to adulthood it’s vital for brain development and cognitive function. This makes it an important preconception nutrient.
A study in 2005 (predating funded iodine in pregnancy) found that breastfed infants had iodine levels half that of formula fed infants, showing the high rate of deficiency among New Zealand mothers (and the whole NZ population).
Iodine deficiency became quite widespread in the early 1900’s in New Zealand but leveled out with the iodisation of salt. Unfortunately the iodine status of kiwis has been declining again to such a level that intervention was once again required. Iodine was recently added to bread in an attempt to increase the general populations intake and it’s now a Ministry of Health recommended prescription for all pregnant women. Iodine is naturally found in seafood and shellfish, seaweed, eggs and spinach. Most other fruits, vegetables, meat and grains should contain some level of iodine but that relies on good levels of iodine in the soil. New Zealand soils now have very low levels of iodine in our soil contributing to the problem. Three other reasons for the mass deficiency include:
- High consumption of commercially prepared foods that usually contain non-iodised salt (it’s cheaper).
- The decrease use of salt for health reasons (heart disease) and the rise of rock salt etc.
- The declining use of iodine containing sanitisers (cleaning products) in the dairy industry, leading to a decline of iodine residues in our dairy products.
There are a myriad of other nutrition and supplement options marketed for pregnancy. An overwhelming number actually! Everyone’s needs are different and it’s important to talk to a health professional before taking more than iodine and folic acid. The most important thing you can do is eat a balanced diet with 5 serves of veggies, some fruit, good quality protein and wholegrains. If you and your partner do this daily you’re likely to be covering all the bases.
It’s empowering to think that by improving your health through preconception and pregnancy you can actually make a dent in the growing epidemic of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity in the next generation. What a beautiful example of food being medicine.
This blog post was written by Annaliese Jones, specialist in Nutrition, Naturopathy and Herbal Medicine. If you'd like to get in touch with Annaliese, you can find her website here.