Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents, sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic and conducts clinical trials. She is also a patient with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored her health using now pedals her bike to work each day. She is the author of The Wahls Protocol and teaches the public and medical community about the healing power of intensive nutrition. Follow the Wahls Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds to support Dr. Wahls’ research and public education about the benefits of lifestyle interventions to treat chronic disease at www.thewahlsfoundation.org.
Assistive reproductive technology has become a booming business over the last three decades, as more women have trouble both getting pregnant and carrying the pregnancy to full term. It’s great that science can help more women have the babies they want, but technology can’t solve every issue. The quality of the health of both parents directly influences the health of the child, and can also impact premature delivery. Having the baby before 37 weeks increases the risk of health problems for the baby, with higher rates of damage to the retina and brain. Issues like cerebral palsy, cognitive problems, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems can be the result. This is why it is important to carry the pregnancy to term whenever possible, and to ensure not just adequate but optimal nutrition for the fetus.
Fortunately, the environment you provide inside your own body is largely under your own control, and this can positively influence fertility as well as fetal health and the ability to carry the pregnancy to full term.
I tell my patients that there are three things to focus on to optimize fetal creation, development, and delivery:
- hormonal status of both biological parents
- nutritional status of both biological parents
- vitamin D status.
First let’s talk about hormone issues. There is evidence that both men and women are having increasing problems with their hormonal balance. Over the last decade, the sperm count and quality has fallen world wide by nearly 50%. The precise reasons for this decline are unknown, but it is most often attributed to the pesticides, solvents, fragrances, and other chemical additives that are present in low levels in our food and water supply (and therefore in most of us). Many of these synthetic chemicals interact with the hormone receptors in our cells, shifting the hormone balance, making men biochemically more like women and the women biochemically more like men. The result for men can be a decline in sperm count, higher rates of erectile dysfunction, and/or insulin resistance or pre-diabetes. For women, the result is often earlier puberty, higher rates of endometriosis (a common cause of severe menstrual cramps and infertility), hirsutism (excess facial hair), insulin resistance, and polycystic ovarian disease, which can lead to problems with ovulation and decreased fertility.
What do we do about this? Reducing toxin load in the body can improve hormonal balance, reducing problems related to poor sperm counts, erectile dysfunction, hirsutism, polycystic ovarian disease, and insulin resistance.
Another reason to work on reducing toxins in mom is that the toxins stored in mom’s body will also be present in the growing fetus, and then in mom’s breast milk. Working to reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals in the body is an important part of preparing to have children.
Now let’s discuss nutritional status. We have known for a long time that nutritional status of the mother matters a great deal, prior to pregnancy, throughout pregnancy, and beyond. If mom is low in folate, the baby is at a higher risk of being born with a neural tube defect or spina bifida. However, Dad’s folate status also matters. A recent study in mice indicated that the father’s folate levels will impact the risk of neural tube defects in sons. The lower the folate level, the higher the risk of a neural tube defect. Having plenty of folate is therefore crucial for both parents.
Another reason to pay attention to mom’s nutrition is that the developing baby will pull the vitamins, minerals, and essential fats that it needs from mom’s body, which can lead to depletion of mom’s nutrient stores. As her stores of vitamins, minerals, and essential fats are depleted, her health will be negatively impacted, increasing her risk of post partum mental health problems and osteoporosis later in life.
Good nutrition is also concerned with what you leave out of the diet. For example, gluten sensitivity is associated with endometriosis and infertility. If you are sensitive to gluten but continue to include it in your diet, you could be infertile and never know why. Maximizing mom’s nutrition before getting pregnant and during pregnancy will help her build a stronger, healthier baby and will help protect her own health as well.
The third thing to consider is vitamin D status. Lower vitamin D and vitamin A levels are both associated with higher rates of premature births. Vitamin D is manufactured by our skin in response to ultraviolet light activating cholesterol in our skin. It will then be activated in our kidneys and liver to become active vitamin D. Because physicians have linked sun exposure to the development of skin cancer, people are advised to avoid sunburns and use sun screen. The result is that nearly everyone I see in my clinical practice is severely low in their vitamin D level unless they are taking a vitamin D supplement or happen to be a lifeguard for a beach or pool.
So what are my recommendations for the moms- and dads-to-be?
- Reduce the intake of toxins for both mom and dad.
- Ideally, switch to organic food and personal care products for two years before trying to get pregnant.
- During pregnancy, eat wild smaller fish, lower down on the food chain, and organic grass fed meat, as well as plenty of organic vegetables, stressing greens and sulfur rich vegetables in the cabbage, onion, and mushroom family to support the detoxification enzymes. This lowers the mom’s level of toxins she has stored in her body while also providing dense nutrition.
- Eat more liver and green vegetables for the folate and vitamin A.
- Check your vitamin D level and aim to have the vitamin D in the top half of the reference range. The reference range is provided by the lab and for many labs the range is 20 or 30 ng/ ml for the lower limit and 70 or 80 ng/ ml for the upper limit ng/ ml.
- Consider going gluten free before investing in assistive reproductive technology to get pregnant.
In my book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine, I review additional strategies to lower the intake of toxins and ramp up the enzymes in the body that eliminate toxins. I also explain how to have the most nutrient-dense diet possible. Although my book is oriented to people struggling with autoimmunity, the strategies in my book are also very appropriate and beneficial for resolving erectile dysfunction, increasing fertility, maintaining a healthy pregnancy, carrying a pregnancy to term, and breastfeeding a healthy, vital baby.