It’s probably not on your radar because nobody—not even the vast majority of doctors—talk about it. Which is especially crazy considering the four to six months before you get pregnant—technically called preconception—can boost your fertility, increase your odds of a successful pregnancy, and completely transform your future children’s health for the better.
“By the time you find out you’re pregnant, all of your baby’s genetics have been formed,” says Dr. Afrouz Demeri, ND, director of functional medicine at University of California Irvine’s Department of Medicine and WeNatal’s Chief Medical Officer. “The nutrition and lifestyle changes you make in the months before you conceive is just as important—if not more so—than the ones you make once you’re pregnant.”
That’s because contrary to what you may have heard, sperm and egg quality can be improved—and the highest quality sperm and eggs create the healthiest babies. Yes, all of the eggs a woman ever has may have developed when she was in utero, but how healthy those eggs are when you conceive is in your control! Science has also shown that sperm quality can be completely transformed for the better in the 80 or so days it takes for those little swimmers to completely regenerate.
This is great news! It means getting pregnant and carrying a healthy baby to term doesn’t come down to the hand you’ve been dealt. There’s a lot both you and your partner can do to boost your odds of conceiving a healthy baby—and the 100 or so days before you get pregnant really can make all the difference.
It’s the best time to improve your egg quality. You’ve probably heard that you’re born with all of the eggs that you’ll ever have. And while that’s true, there’s a really important caveat most of us haven’t been told: Those eggs don’t actually mature until the 100 or so days before you ovulate. Which means you’ve got some control when it comes to how healthy (or not) your eggs are when you conceive. If your nutrition is on point (and you’re taking a high-quality prenatal supplement!), your stress is low, and you’re living a healthy, clean lifestyle, you’ll tee yourself up for optimal egg development. “During this 100-day period before you get pregnant, the egg is more prone to accumulating chromosomal errors,” says Dr. Demeri. While we used to think there was nothing you can do about that—and that a higher maternal age practically guaranteed a bigger risk of these chromosome mistakes—new research shows that’s not completely true. There’s actually a lot you can do to optimize this egg development process.
It’s an ideal window to boost sperm quality, too. We tend to focus on women when we talk about fertility and pregnancy, but 50 percent of the human you’re hoping to create is made from Dad! Research shows that both parents’ health and lifestyle choices around the time of conception can influence a baby’s long-term health risks. And a growing body of science reveals that sperm quality is a huge factor! One recent study found that some cases of recurrent miscarriages are caused by the father having a high incidence of abnormal chromosomes in his sperm. Another found that men taking antioxidant supplements increase the odds of their partner conceiving fourfold—and have a five times higher chance of a live birth—compared to those not taking antioxidants. Good reason for guys to do everything they can (even if that simply means taking a daily supplement that has the right combo of antioxidants and vitamins!) to improve their sperm quality in the months before you get pregnant.
Now’s the best time to get the right (and right amount) of nutrients. For both men and women, nutrition before pregnancy can have a big impact on the growth, development, and long-term health of your future babies, according to research. For men, a focus on antioxidants is key because sperm are particularly prone to oxidative damage. That means increasing omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, as well as vitamins A, C, and E—and reducing (or ideally eliminating!) smoking, alcohol, and a lot of processed foods. For women, the active form of folate is crucial for every stage of fertility, from ovulation to fetal growth, choline is important for your baby’s brain development and cognition, and antioxidants like vitamins C and E have been shown to boost egg quality and lead to better IVF outcomes.
There’s another really important reason to build up these nutrient stores before baby’s on board: Most women experience food aversions and nausea during their first trimester, and your diet will likely take a turn for the worse as your body adjusts to growing a tiny human. Which means the higher your store of these important nutrients before you conceive, the better!
HERE’S WHERE TO START:
Take a quality prenatal supplement ASAP. To be honest, every woman of childbearing age should consider taking a prenatal supplement, says Dr. Demeri. After all, consider the fact that a whopping 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned—and that for many women, learning they’re pregnant doesn’t happen until a few weeks in, after a period of early embryo development that requires key nutrients in high amounts. “Those important nutrients needed in this early stage of pregnancy are also often depleted due to medication use and our modern lifestyle,” adds Dr. Demeri. Which means taking a quality prenatal at least four months—and ideally six months or longer—before you conceive can be a game changer. “It really is never too early to start,” she says.
Get your man on a supplement, too. It’s all about the egg, right? Wrong! A growing body of evidence shows that sperm play a role in everything from conception to embryo development. Some research has even suggested that up to 50 percent of pregnancy loss may be related to less-than-stellar sperm. Nutrients with the most evidence showing they can help men during the preconception period include vitamin E, vitamin C, CoQ10, L-carnitine, and zinc. CoQ10 has also been shown to improve sperm count and motility, and L-carnitine can have a big impact on the size and shape of a man’s sperm.
Keep your stress in check. You already know that stress causes widespread inflammation throughout the body. Yet an emerging field of research called epigenetics is showing that when inflammatory markers are high, it raises your risk of any bad genes you have—a.k.a. the ones most likely to lead to disease later on—being turned “on” when you conceive. That puts your baby at a higher risk of those genes being turned “on” when he or she is born, says Dr. Demeri. The bottom line: The healthier you are when you get pregnant, the lower your chance that any gene mutations you pass along to your child will ultimately impact him or her.
Remember that fertility is something to work on together. For far too long, women have shouldered a lot more of the baby-making burden—from doctors placing all the emphasis on egg quality and none on the sperm, to women convincing themselves that miscarriage was somehow their fault. Well, it’s time to flip the script. After all, your future children need your best possible eggs and sperm, and the lifestyle and nutrition choices both of you make really do control that destiny. By shifting your focus from me to we, you’ll not only optimize your chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby, but you’ll also feel more connected, empowered, and excited to be on this path to parenthood together.