7 Essential Nutrients for Healthy Conception
Having a healthy pregnancy and delivering a healthy baby starts with the health of your body, as the future mother. It's essential to begin to prepare your body for a healthy pregnancy months before trying to get pregnant to help improve egg quality, fertility, and development of the baby. There are several nutrition and lifestyle changes that you can incorporate that have an incredible impact on optimizing egg quality, fertility and prenatal health. And just as importantly, there are plenty of things that men can do to support optimal sperm quality and improve the likelihood of conception--it truly is a team effort (more on that later)!
When it comes to optimizing fertility, improving egg quality and supporting the proper development of the baby, research shows that it's important to work on increasing the nutrient-density of your foods, taking high quality supplements, and making lifestyle changes such as improving sleep, exercising and decreasing stress. But the first place to start is ensuring that you are consuming optimal levels of nutrients! While it’s not widely talked about, inadequate levels of nutrients from diet and poor quality prenatal supplements has a negative effect on pregnancy outcomes. It’s ideal to start optimizing your nutrient status three months prior to pregnancy. This not only helps with conception, but provides the essential nutrients needed to grow a healthy baby. And as a bonus it gives your body ample nutrient stores to draw upon if you happen to experience first trimester nausea and find it hard to consume nutrient dense foods during this time.
A High Quality Prenatal is Key
Having adequate levels of the essential nutrients is critical for a healthy conception and pregnancy. Even mild deficiencies can decrease egg quality and lead to detrimental effects on embryonic development. Egg quality is a critical component of reproductive health and can be supported through proper diet and nutrition. Eating a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet, in addition to taking targeted nutrition supplements can ensure the body has what it needs to support an egg follicle during the approximately three-month period needed for development.
It starts with optimizing cellular metabolism as part of an overall strategy to support general health and emphasizing good ovarian function before pregnancy. Doctors are finding the preparation for pregnancy is as crucial as the prenatal period; in terms of a baby’s lifelong health.
The recommendations that women usually receive from their OBGYN is simply: “take a prenatal.” True. But not all prenatals are created equal. Taking a prenatal prior to pregnancy is critical BUT the majority of prenatal supplements either 1) have forms of nutrients that are not easily absorbable 2) lack important nutrients for conception and healthy pregnancy 3) contain low levels of nutrients that will not lead to optimal nutrient levels. Improving egg quality and pregnancy outcomes is dependent on having a high quality prenatal. In the meantime, the prenatal that I most often recommend is Plus One by Metagenics. But there will be even better options coming this fall! More to come soon!
Beyond taking a prenatal, there are many other things you and your partner can do to proactively optimize your baseline health. This includes eating a nutrient-dense and whole foods diet, balancing your blood sugar, decreasing toxic exposure, running your labs to identify any gaps, and proactively prioritizing stress reduction and sleep! In this article, I break down the key nutrients that are essential for optimal health and pregnancy outcomes!
Nutrients to Support Conception
One of the most critical nutrients for before and during pregnancy is vitamin B9, otherwise known as folate. This B vitamin is key for supporting healthy ovulation, egg development, and the formation of the neural tube in early pregnancy. Folate has been associated with the prevention of major birth defects of the developing brain and spine. And while this nutrient is critical, the form that you take is the most important. Most prenatals often contain the synthetic form of vitamin B9, called folic acid. Folic acid is not active in the body and needs to be converted to L-methyl folate or 5-methyltetrahydrafolate (5-MTHF). It’s estimated that 40-60% of the population has one or more genetic polymorphisms to the MTHFR gene which decreases the body’s ability to convert folic acid into the active form, folate. When looking at prenatal supplements, be sure that the form of vitamin B9 is folate or (5-MTHF) and that it contains at least 600mcg per day. If you have an MTHFR gene mutation, your needs will be even higher.
You also want to ensure you are getting adequate levels of folate in your diet. Foods that are rich in folate include liver, sunflower seeds, lentils, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and chickpeas.
Myo-Inositol or inositol in its most common form, is sometimes referred to as Vitamin B8, though it’s not actually a vitamin, but a form of sugar. It is an important component of cell membranes and acts as a neuro-communication messenger, among other functions. Inositol is an important supplement in promoting female fertility because it supports hormonal balance, via its role in healthy liver function. It is critical for optimal cellular metabolism and for good ovarian function. It may also increase insulin sensitivity which can help the ovaries promote better egg quality. This is especially important for women with blood sugar imbalances or PCOS. PCOS is a gynecological issue that causes hormone imbalances which can lead to irregular periods, affect egg quality, and even lead to infertility. Supplementing with inositol may improve PCOS symptoms, particularly when combined with folate.
This sunshine vitamin is important for pre-pregnancy health as those with optimal vitamin D status have been shown to have higher fertility, especially in those undergoing IVF treatment. Optimal vitamin D status is also important during pregnancy as those with optimal status have decreased risks of pregnancy complications including preterm birth, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia. Unfortunately, most people tend to be deficient in vitamin D since the best source of this vitamin is sunshine, and many either live too far north or spend too much of their time indoors to absorb the appropriate amount. Most people need to supplement with 4,000-5,000 IU of vitamin D preconception to ensure that your levels are on the high end of the appropriate range. Vitamin D can also be found in fatty fish and egg yolks, in addition to 15-30 minutes of direct sunlight per day. It’s best to have your doctor check your vitamin D levels routinely to ensure you are taking the proper supplement dose for your needs.
Along with folate, choline is important in supporting methylation, preventing neural tube defects and promoting brain development. Choline also assists in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine. This conversion is important because high homocysteine levels have been linked to poorer egg quality and higher rates of miscarriage. Choline serves as a precursor to neurotransmitter synthesis which is one of the reasons it is beneficial for the developing brain of the fetus. In fact, an animal study showed that higher intake of choline during pregnancy led to better memory in offspring. The RDA level for choline is 450 mg during pregnancy and 550mg during breastfeeding, through food and supplements. Research shows that less than 10% of pregnant women meet this recommendation (likely because many prenatals are lacking adequate choline). But choline needs may even be higher than what is recommended by the RDA. New research shows women who take 930mg of choline per day had babies with higher information processing speed. Choline is abundant in wild salmon, egg yolks, organ meats, broccoli, and navy beans.
Magnesium is an essential co-factor in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body and is vital for overall health. Plus, proper magnesium levels are important in the production of progesterone, a critical hormone in reproductive health. Magnesium not only helps to balance progesterone and estrogen levels, but also modulates follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to support optimal hormonal health. Since FSH is tied to available estrogen (which depends on magnesium), and FSH is the hormone that stimulates the ovaries, low magnesium can disrupt this important balance, even increasing risk of miscarriage. Stress is known to deplete magnesium and as magnesium levels decrease, the stress hormone, cortisol, increases and forces magnesium levels even lower. When this happens, a vicious cycle ensues (and no surprise, fertility itself can be quite stressful). Deficiency in magnesium during pregnancy can also increase risk of pre-eclampsia and pre-term delivery in mother.
The recommended level of magnesium for pregnant women is 350mg per day. To optimize magnesium levels, focus on consuming pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, avocado and other nuts, seeds and legumes. The magnesium status of food is highly dependent on soil health, and since a lot of soil has become nutrient void due to unhealthy farming practices, you may need the addition of a quality supplement to meet your magnesium needs.
Having optimal iron levels helps support fertility, ovulation and energy levels preconception. Iron is also important for the formation of red blood cells during pregnancy and preventing iron deficiency anemia in both mom and newborn. The recommendation is for pregnant women to get 27 mg of iron per day between food and supplements but the amount needed varies for each person and is best to be tested routinely. It's estimated that 18% of pregnant women in the US have some form of iron deficiency. While it’s found in food sources, having a prenatal supplement with adequate iron levels can often help meet the daily requirements. The form of iron supplementation that is less likely to cause these constipation and gastrointestinal symptoms is iron bisglycinate. Iron is found most abundantly in grass-fed red beef, organic chicken, oysters and sardines, but is also found in pumpkin seeds and lentils. To enhance your absorption of plant-based iron, pair these foods with vitamin C rich foods such as lemon juice and avoid drinking coffee or tea when consuming iron rich foods.
7-Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These essential fats are an important form of polyunsaturated fats that can help decrease overall inflammation and improve cell signaling by affecting the fluidity of cell membranes. They play an important role in fertility, especially in women over the age of 35 by improving egg quality. Improving the ratio of omega-6s to omega 3s is associated with lower levels of inflammation and may also be associated with fertility outcomes. While omega-6s are needed in a healthy diet, it is important to consume them in a ratio to omega-3s of 4:1 or less to ensure optimal omega balance. The daily minimum recommendation for omega 3 fats is 1.4g per day. Omega-3s are found in their most available form in fatty fish such as wild salmon, herring, sardines, and mussels. Many women also benefit from additional omega 3 supplementation like the Nordic Naturals Prenatal DHA fish oil supplement.
Focus on supporting general well-being, healthy ovaries and eggs by consuming a whole food rich diet with adequate protein and fat to support hormonal production and health. While this article focused on women’s health, there are many nutrients that support male fertility as well--more to come on that! Though conception can feel out of your control, assuring the body has the nutrients it needs to successfully conceive is something you can control.
Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash