Want a Healthy Baby? Moms and Dads get a Head Start

We all know that caring for a child’s health begins before birth. Prenatal health care has become standard protocol in the field of preventive medicine. Some experts and advocacy groups, however, are saying that the mother–and father–need to pay attention to their health before conception occurs.

Preconceptual health care is an age old concept. During the 1930’s, Weston Price, a Canadian dentist, observed many tribal cultures were aware of the link between a child’s health and the parents during conception. In some cases, tribal women, and sometimes men, were placed on a health-promoting diet six months prior to marriage (1).

Some physicians in our own culture advise future parents to improve their health at least six months prior to conception. Foresight, a British association promoting preconceptual care, outlines a comprehensive medical checkup for parents-to-be including a nutrition, toxin and pathological screening. Poor health can then be corrected using nutrition, exercise, rest, homeopathy, stress reduction and other appropriate means.

Eating for Three

“Nature is so intent upon the continuance of the race,” said Roger Williams, biochemist, “that people propagate even when nutritional conditions are bad” (2). During famine, for example, the incidence of congenital deformities increases, possibly because their parents are undernourished.

As part of his global study, Price observed the nutritional changes of people who became malnourished as the abandoned their traditional diet of whole foods for Westernized processed foods. Within one generation he saw nutritionally deficient parents bear less healthy children. Another scientist, Frances Pottenger found it takes several generations of eating a healthy diet before offspring regain 100 percent of their health at birth (3).

Occasionally, a poor diet disrupts a woman or man’s reproductive ability so much that infertility results (4,5). Certain vitamins and minerals are necessary to produce and maintain the egg and sperm. If these nutritional needs aren’t met, conception and fetal health can be affected. Folic acid is a case in point. The Centers for Disease Control now recommend that all women of child bearing age take 400 mcg of folic acid to protect a child they might conceive from neural tube defect, a type of birth defect (6).

Men are also advised to watch their nutrient levels if they want to father a healthy baby. Vitamins C (7), B12 (8) and E (9), as well as zinc (10) and magnesium (11) have been shown to positively impact fertility.

Say no to Drugs

In a 1966 recount of a couple’s experience with pregnancy, a woman asked her doctor if she should cut down her smoking. He told her not to worry. This attitude toward the use of drugs including nicotine, caffeine and alcohol during pregnancy has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Now we know that drug usage even before conception can be harmful.

The adverse effect of tobacco on pregnancy, fertility and health in general is well-publicized, yet one-third of women and men in their reproductive years smoke. At present, several studies allude to the damage smoking causes before conception. Research indicates that a woman smoker may harm her eggs (12), fallopian tubes and cervix (13). The cancer and mutation causing substances found in cigarette smoke can hurt a man’s sperm. Some investigators suggest that if a mutated sperm successfully mates with an egg, the fetus may suffer (12,14).

The scenario of a couple sipping wine to get into the mood with plans of getting pregnant is quickly becoming passe. Our knowledge about alcohol’s preconceptual effects are less defined than during pregnancy. However, we know that liquor depresses immune function (15), disrupts the liver and directly enhances malnutrition (16). Research with rodents implies that even moderate alcohol consumption may induce genetic damage and increase the occurrence of mental and physical handicaps in a child due to liquor’s effect on the egg and sperm (3).

There’s no question you shouldn’t take drugs before trying to conceive a baby. Marijuana, for example, is double jeopardy. When a joint is deeply inhaled, the lungs receive more tar and carbon monoxide than from cigarette smoking (3). In addition, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)–the psychoactive compound similar in structure to sex hormones–tends to accumulate in the ovaries and testes, posing a potential threat to a child’s genetic material (17). Marijuana may also be linked to increased fetal deaths and malformations (3).

Cocaine adversely affects sperm, and thus the children conceived from them. Perhaps because this drug attaches directly to sperm (18), it creates sluggish and abnormally formed sperm, as well as diminishing its concentration in semen (19).

Many obstetricians advise patients to eliminate or cut down on coffee and other caffeinated beverages during pregnancy. This is also wise for people planning a family. Researchers have varying opinions on caffeine’s effects (20,21). But recent studies show caffeine disrupts insect reproduction, causes skeletal impairment in rodents (20) and induces mutations among cultured hamster lung cells (22). One investigation discovered women who drank a lot of caffeine were less fertile than occasional or non-users (20).

Stressed Out

Stress, the term used to describe the emotional and mental thorns in our lives, has been linked to a host of illnesses, including heart disease (23), dental cavities (24) and the common cold (25). Paavo Airola, ND wrote that stress “can tear your health down faster than can inadequate nutrition” (26). When preparing to become pregnant, keep stress in balance.

Undue stress upsets reproductive health in both women and men. Negative emotions can decrease sperm count and motion (27). Prolactin, a female hormone responsible for milk production and breast growth during pregnancy, also tends to stop menstruation and
reduce fertility. This hormone and its effects may increase under you’re under stress (28).

There’s even scientific evidence that wanting to become parents is important for the health of a future child. A Czechoslovakian study found that children born to mothers who asked for but were denied abortions grew up with more psychological problems than children whose mothers wanted to have a baby (29).


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  2. Williams RJ. Nutrition Against Disease. New York: Bantam Books, 1971, p. 57.

  3. Barnes B, Bradley SG. Planning for a Healthy Baby. London: Ebury Press, 1990.

  4. Pirke KM, Tuschl RJ. Prolactin concentrations during menstrual cycles disturbed by weight reducing diets or exercise. Infertility 1988; 11: 185-92.

  5. Kyung NH et al. Effect of carbohydrate supplementation on reproductive hormones during fasting in men. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 1985; 60(5): 827-35.

  6. Cimons M. US advises folic acid to reduce birth defects. Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1992, pp A1 and A17.

  7. Abel BJ et al. Randomised trial of Clomiphene citrate treatment and vitamin C for male infertility. British Journal of Urology 1982; 54: 780-84.

  8. Sandler B, Faragher B. Treatment of oligospermia with vitamin B-12. Infertility 1984; 7: 133-38.

  9. Anon. Vitamin E deficiency and male infertility. Nutrition Reviews 1988; 46(5): 200-2.

  10. Takihara H, Cosentino MJ, Cockett ATK. Effect of low-dose androgen and zinc sulfate on sperm motility and seminal zinc levels in infertile men. urology 1983; 22(2): 160-64.

  11. Deger O, Akkus I. Semen magnesium levels in fertile and infertile subjects. Magnesium 1988; 7: 6-8.

  12. Zavos PM. Cigarette smoking and human reproduction: effects on female and male fecundity. Infertility 1989;
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  15. Karagounis CS, Papanikolaou NA, Zavos PM. Semen parameters compared between smoking and non-smoking men: smoking intensity and semen parameters. Infertility 1985; 8: 373-79.

  16. Louria DB. Effect of alcohol and various diseases on leukocyte mobilization, phagocytosis and intracellular bacterial killing. The New England Journal of Medicine 1970; 282(3): 123-28.

  17. Lieber CS. The metabolism of alcohol. Scientific American 1976, March: 25-33.

  18. Stenchever MA, Kunysz TJ, Allen MA. Chromosome breakage in users of marihuana. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 1974; 118(1): 106-118.
  19. Yazigi RA, Odem RR, Polakoski KL. Demonstration of specific binding of cocaine to human spermatozoa. Journal of the American Medical Association 1991; 266(14): 1956-59.
  20. Bracken MB et al. Association of cocaine use with sperm concentration, motility, and morphology. Fertility and Sterility 1990; 53(2): 315-22.

  21. Wilcox A, Weinberg C, Baird D. Caffeinated beverages and decreased fertility. The Lancet 1988, December 24/31: 1453-56.

  22. Joesoef MR, Beral V, Rolfs RT, Aral SO, Cramer DW. Are caffeinated beverages risk factors for delayed conception? The Lancet 1990; 335: 136-37.

  23. Nakasato F et al. Mutagenicity of instant coffee on cultured Chinese hamster lung cells. Mutation Research 1984; 141: 109-112.

  24. Yeung AC et al. The effect of atherosclerosis on the vasomotor response of coronary arteries to mental stress. The New England Journal of Medicine 1991; 325(22): 1551-56.

  25. Sutton PRN. Acute dental caries, mental stress, immunity and the active passage of ions through the teeth. Medical Hypotheses 1990; 31: 17.

  26. . Cohen S, Tyrrell DAJ, Smith AP. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. The New England Journal of Medicine 1991; 325(9): 606-12.
  27. Airola, Paavo. Everywoman’s Book. pg 33.

  28. Harrison KL, Callan VJ, Hennessey JF. Stress an semen quality in an in vitro fertilization program. Fertility and Sterility 1987; 48(4): 633-36.

  29. O’Moore AM, O’Moore RR, Harrison RF, Murphy G, Carruthers ME. Psychosomatic aspects in idiopathic infertility: effects of treatment with autogenic training. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 1983;
    27(2): 145-51.
  30. Anon. Czechoslovakian study unwanted children face struggle. Pregnancy and Child Birth: Brain/Mind Bulletin Collections 1991; 15(02B).

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Written by Lauri M. Aesoph ND

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