6 Foods to Avoid While Trying For a Baby, & During Pregnancy.
One of the quickest and most effective ways at getting both male and female ready for conception is cleansing the mind and body, both inside and out. This ensures that you are able to rebalance your hormones, improve your gut health and microbiome and create a lush womb ready to provide a cosy and safe environment whilst at the same time providing the most optimal building blocks (sperm and egg) for a beautiful baby.
Below is my naturopathic guide to the foods you should avoid when preparing for pregnancy, and ensures that increased toxicity - which may be creating imbalanced hormones, poor liver metabolism, decreased circulation, inflammation, poor cellular function, a compromised microbiome and decreased vitamin and mineral absorption - have been addressed.
Whilst evidence and opinions regarding dairy consumption and fertility vary, I have a few reasons to recommend avoiding cow’s milk.
— Hormone imbalance. Dairy products are estimated to contain a range of hormones including prolactin, oestrogen, progesterone, insulin, oxytocin, growth hormone so it is no surprise that consuming dairy will affect hormone levels. In fact, it has been estimated that milk and dairy products account for 60-70% of oestrogen consumed1. The reason behind the high levels of oestrogen found in dairy milk has to do with the modern farming process designed to extract as much milk from cows as possible. In traditional farming communities and before farming became increasingly commercialised, cows were milked for five or six months after they give birth. These days the cows are milked for 10 months a year, which is only possible because she is impregnated by artificial insemination while still secreting milk from her previous pregnancy. Milk from pregnant cows contains far higher hormone levels than milk from nonpregnant ones—five times the oestrogen during the first two months of pregnancy, according to one study, and 33 times as much oestrogen as the cow gets closer to term2.
— Antibiotics and pesticide exposure. As a result of cows having to produce more milk than they have been designed to, their mammary glands are prone to infection or mastitis. Hence dairy cattle are given intra mammary infusion of antibiotics to control mastitis. Antibiotics used include erythromycin, penicillin, tectracycline to name a few3. Drugs are also applied to control endoparasites, ectoparasites and several illnesses and to increase milk production. These drugs can be detected in milk supply for a few days after being administered. Whilst there is a maximum limit of drug use in livestock, “over the legal” amounts of antibiotics are frequently detected. Pesticides found in the feed of cows also find their way into milk supply. Pesticides are correlated with male infertility given their ability to decrease testosterone concentration either by inhibiting release of follicle stimulating hormone or luteinising hormone4.
— Beauty Banishing. Dairy consumption promotes insulin production which is one of the key reasons it leads to increased oil production and acne. Another reason to stick to almond milk.
What to do?
— Stick to milk alternatives such as almond milk and coconut milk.
— Small amounts of goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese will not have the hormone disrupting effects that cow’s milk dairy products have.
— Aim to have three serves of the below foods daily for calcium:60 grams raw almonds
— 1 cup of almond milk
— 2 tablespoons of tahini
— 2 cups of kale
— 2 cups of collard greens
— 100 grams of sardines
Alcohol consumption can be one of the items on the avoid list that requires the most convincing. In truth, the scientific evidence about how low to moderate drinking affects male and female fertility is not entirely clear. Below, I provide a few reasons why drinking can be of detriment to both you and your unborn baby.
— Greater success of pregnancy. Several studies have shown that women who reduce or abstain from alcohol during the pre-conception period have greater odds of becoming pregnant. Moderate-to-heavy alcohol intake decreases fertility, increases the time taken to conceive, increases the risk of miscarriage and negatively impacts on the success of IVF treatment 5,6. One study which included research on couples who had already undergone around three failed cycles of IVF, found that women who abstained from all alcohol had a 90% chance of achieving a successful pregnancy, over three years whilst women who drank an average of just three small glasses of wine a week had a 30% chance of conceiving over the same period. This study implies that alcohol can affect the normal development of the egg, so whether you are trying to conceive naturally or via assisted fertility methods, the effect of alcohol would be the same.
— Improved sperm quality and libido. Alcohol can affect male fertility as much as it can affect female fertility. Studies show alcohol can cause impotence, reduce libido and affect sperm quality7. How much alcohol does it take to impact sperm quality? It seems that as little as five units of alcohol per week can have an impact. A study published in the journal BMJ Open, examined 1,200 Danish male military recruits between the ages of 18 and 28, all of whom underwent a medical examination between 2008 and 2012. As part of the assessment they were asked about their drinking habits and invited to provide sperm and blood samples. Among this group of men, researchers found that the higher the tally of weekly units, the lower was the sperm quality in terms of sperm count and the proportion of sperm that were of normal size and shape. The effects were evident in those who drank five or more units a week and most apparent in those who drank 25 units or more. Those who typically drank 40 units a week had 33% lower sperm count and also had 51% less “normal looking” sperm than men who drank between one and five units a week8.
— Pregnancy complications. Pre-natal alcohol exposure associated with spontaneous abortion, prenatal and postnatal growth restriction and birth defects9,10. It is also one of the leading causes of neurodevelopmental deficits in children. Whilst you may argue that you will stop drinking alcohol once you fall pregnant, often there will be at least a week or two of exposure prior to women noticing that they are actually pregnant. You would not want to risk the harmful effects of alcohol during this time.
— Beauty banishing. There is no doubt that alcohol consumption leads to free radical damage in the body and accelerates ageing. Studies show that drinking damages parts of cells specific to ageing and cancer with it causing stress and inflammation to telomeres which are the ends of DNA strands that stop them from unravelling. As people age, telomere length shortens progressively and eventually they are so damaged the cell dies. Alcohol accelerates this process which directly leads to ageing and cell death11. Alcohol also dehydrates the body, leading to dry and dull skin with reduced plumpness and elasticity. You may have been misled to think that drinking red wine enhances your beauty – this is far from the truth. The red pigment in alcohol, which represents the flavonoids and antioxidants found in grapes, is what is responsible for the antioxidant effects – not the alcohol itself. You are better off eating a handful of grapes or berries for the same impact without the alcohol damage.
What to do?
— Replace alcohol with sparking water spruced up with pomegranate juice or fruit juice.
— Get into the habit of drinking fresh water infused with lemon lime, berries and herbs such as mint and basil. You will look forward to the fresh fruity flavours.
— Experiment with iced teas and mocktails for special occasions.
— If you must, reserve alcohol for very special occasions, and then only indulge in one glass rather than two or three. One glass every three weeks should not impact your fertility. However, it is easier to just pull the plug on alcohol- you will be surprised at how energised and stable you feel when you stop drinking it altogether.
Many of us do not think twice about having a cup of coffee or two daily. It seems to be an acceptable and harmless practice. However, when it comes to fast tracking pregnancy and ensuring a healthy pregnancy and baby, I recommend replacing it with herbal tea.
— Pregnancy loss. Miscarriage and caffeine consumption are frequently linked. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University involved information from the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment Study, which included 501 couples interested in having children who were recruited to participate over a four-year period. The men and women were asked to record their daily use of cigarettes, caffeinated drinks, alcohol and multivitamins during pre-conception and early pregnancy. The data shows that couples who drank more than two caffeinated drinks a day during the weeks before conception had a higher risk that the woman would miscarry. Interestingly this implies that both mum and dad’s caffeine intake is implicated. So males do not get off scot free on this one12.
— Hormone imbalance. There may be a link between caffeine consumption and oestrogen levels in the body. One particular study found that amongst 500 women aged 36-45, those who consumed at least 500mg of caffeine per day had nearly 70% more oestrogen during their early follicular phase of their menstrual cycles as compared to women who consumed no more than 100mg of caffeine daily.
— Beauty banishing. In much the same way as alcohol, caffeine acts as a diuretic, robbing the skin of much needed hydration. It can also cause increase cortisol production, which not only leads to increase insulin production, a precursor for acne, it can reduce the uptake of beauty boosting minerals and nutrients.
What to do?
— Replace your daily coffee with a tea or dandelion root chai. Having two cups of green tea or one cup of black tea daily during preconception is harmless.
— Experiment with herbal teas -some of my favourites include licorice, dandelion chai, peppermint and chamomile.
— Stop drinking all green tea and black tea when pregnant. Herbal teas such as chamomile, ginger, peppermint and rooibos are all safe.
— Infertility. Obtaining just 2% of calories from trans-fats instead of healthier monounsaturated fats is associated with a doubled risk for ovulation-related fertility problems. For women eating 1800 calories a day this equates to 4 grams of trans fats which is quite easy to consume if you are not exercising caution13.
— Beauty banishing. Eating trans fats generates an inflammatory response in the body which triggers DNA- and collagen-damaging oxidative stress. This equates to ageing skin, blemishes, red skin and cell damage. There is also evidence which points to common vegetable oils like sunflower oil and canola oil causing acne. The mechanism behind this can be explained by the way in which oil production occurs in skin cells. The skin requires linoleic acid to produce a standard amount of sebum in the normal way. Linoleic acid is found in flaxseed oil and natural plant-based fats. When you ingest trans-fats like margarine instead, your body makes a different kind of sebum. This sebum contains oleic acid and is especially likely to cause whiteheads. Oleic acid is dryer than linoleic acid and may harden more easily inside of pores.
What to do?
— Avoid all foods that list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredients.
— Avoid vegetable oils, margarines, shortening and creams.
— Avoid fried foods, fast food and processed foods which are commonly cooked in trans-fats.
— Load up on good fats found in nuts, seeds and avocados.
Sugar seems relatively harmless. However, when it comes to hormones and fertility, it can be very disruptive.
— Hormone imbalance. Sugar in all forms, whether in a cup of tea or honey on a spread on toast has an effect on blood sugar levels which rise rapidly as soon as the sugary food is eaten. This leads to a spike in insulin levels. Insulin is required to get sugar into cells quickly. However, a large spike in insulin can lead to a subsequent crash in blood sugars and which can signal an alarm response in the body. This activates the adrenal glands to release cortisol. The adrenal glands produce sex hormones as well as stress hormones and unfortunately the body uses the same precursor, pregnenolone, both for stress hormones and for sex hormones. This means that the more stressors you experience – including sugar consumption – the fewer resources you have left to make the sex hormones that favour fertility and pregnancy.
— Insulin resistance. As insulin is a storage hormone which causes glucose and other nutrients to enter the cells. When we chow down on sweet or starchy foods, the body responds by releasing large amounts of insulin. Over time, the body’s cells become less and less responsive to the presence of insulin. This means that sugar is less and less able to move from the blood into the cells which refers to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is at the basis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) which affects ovulation. Insulin resistance also promotes the growth of abdominal fat. Visceral fat tissue possesses aromatase, an enzyme that converts androstenedione to oestrone and testosterone to oestradiol. The excess of adipose tissue in insulin resistance creates the paradox of having both excess androgen hormones along with excess oestrogen which inhibits FSH.
— Nutrient depletion. When we eat sugar, a significant amount of work is required for it to be processed. Nutrients including zinc, chromium, magnesium and thiamine (vitamin B1) are just a few of the numerous nutrients depleted in the process. These nutrients are critical to keeping our hormones in check which means we compromise our fertility for a sweet tooth.
— Beauty banishing. When we consume too many sugary or high-glycaemic foods these sugars react with proteins and fats in an abnormal way, producing harmful molecules called “advanced glycation end products in a process that is called “glycation.” The more AGEs we have in our bodies, the more we age. Scientists have discovered this through study of diabetics. The key here is blood sugar—the higher the level of glucose in the blood, the more AGEs we produce. The more AGEs we have in our bodies, the more we age. Studies show the complications of diabetes and aging, with the AGEs particularly affecting things like collagen (which gives skin its firmness) and elastin (which helps skin bounce back after being stretched). So if you need an additional reason to avoid sugar consumption, preserving your youth has to be it!
What to do?
— Avoid all refined sugar and added sugar. Look out for ingredients that represent sugar, this includes: sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, sorbitol, dried fruit and honey.
— Do not turn to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, aspartic acid, phenylalanine, sorbitol, sucralose, Equal, Splenda etc
— Replace sugar with stevia where you need to add sweetness.
— Have a serve of fruit (low GI) or two squares of dark chocolate when you are craving something sweet.
— Consuming fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kefir will assist in curbing your cravings so adhering to this eating program should make avoiding sugar very easy.
— Try to go sugar free for at least two weeks and push through the cravings. After the two weeks your taste buds will adjust and it will be much easier to stick to a sugar free eating regime.
Mercury Containing Fish
According to the Center for Disease Control one in twelve women of child-bearing age already have unsafe blood levels of mercury. This is significant as blood is not a good indicator of mercury levels, it is when it leaves the blood and binds to proteins that it causes havoc14.
— Endocrine disruptor. Mercury is an endocrine disrupting metal. Studies have found that mercury accumulates in the ovaries and testes, inhibits enzymes necessary for sperm production, affects DNA in sperm, causes aberrant numbers of chromosomes in cells, and causes chromosome breaks—all of which can cause infertility, spontaneous abortions, or birth defects . Mercury can also affect zinc levels which impacts progesterone balance and testosterone production15.
— Linked to infertility. In a study of the effects of mercury on fertility, sub-fertile males in Hong Kong were found to have 40% more mercury in their hair than fertile controls. Infertile males with abnormal semen and infertile females with unexplained infertility also had higher blood mercury concentrations than their fertile counterparts16.
— Impairs foetal development. Government guidelines around high mercury fish consumption reflect studies which have shown that exposure even to low doses of methylmercury during pregnancy can impair a baby’s growing brain and nervous system17.
What to do?
— Avoid fish which are high in heavy metals. This includes canned tuna, fresh tuna, swordfish, mackerel and ling.
— Enjoy fish which are higher in the food chain such as sardines, wild caught barramundi, perch, silver dory, cod, hoki etc
— Supplement with high quality Omega 3s.
- Hartmann et al., ‘Natural occurrence of steroid hormones in food’. Food Chemistry, vol.62, no.1, pp. 7–20, 1998.
- Ganmaa et al.,’ The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers, Medical Hypotheses, vol.65, no.6, pp. 1028-37, 2005.
- Korsrud et al., ‘Bacterial inhibition tests used to screen for antimicrobial veterinary drug residues in slaughtered animals,’ Journal of AOAC International, vol. 81, pp. 21-24, 1998.
- 20 R. Kaur et al., ‘Potential pathways of pesticide action on erectile function – A contributory factor in male infertility,’ Asian Pacific Journal of Reproduction, vol. 4, no.4, pp- 322-330, 2015
- Hakim et al., ‘Alcohol and caffeine consumption and decreased fertility,’ Fertility and Sterility, vol.70, no.4, pp. 632–637, 1998.
- Jensen et al., ‘Does moderate alcohol consumption affect fertility? Follow up study among couples planning first pregnancy,’ British Medical Journal, vol. 317, pp.505–510, 1998.
- Donnelly et al., “Direct effect of alcohol on the motility and morphology of human spermatozoa.” Andrologia, vol.31, no.1, pp. 43-47, 1999
- Jensen et al., ‘Habitual alcohol consumption associated with reduced semen quality and changes in reproductive hormones; a cross-sectional study among 1221 young Danish men,’ British Medical Journal, vol.4, no.9, e005462. 2014.
- Windham et al., ‘Moderate maternal alcohol consumption and risk of spontaneous abortion,’ Epidemiology, vol.8, no.5, pp.509-514, 1997.
- Kesmodel et al., ‘Moderate alcohol intake during pregnancy and the risk of stillbirth and death in the first year of life,’ American Journal of Epidemiology. vo.155, no.4, pp. 305-10, 2002
- Pavanello et al., ‘Shortened telomeres in individuals with abuse in alcohol consumption,’ International Journal of Cancer, vol. 129. No.4, pp.983-993.2011.
- Louis et, al., ‘Lifestyle and pregnancy loss in a contemporary cohort of women recruited before conception: The LIFE Study, Fertility and Sterility, vol. 106, no.1, pp.180-188. 2016.
- Chavarro et al., ‘Dietary fatty acid intake and the risk of ovulatory fertility,’ American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 85, no.1, pp 231-237, 2007.
- Jones et al., Blood mercury levels in young children and childbearing aged women – USA,’ National Center for Environmental Health; National Centre for Health Statistics, CDC. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 53, no.43, pp.1018-1020, 2004.
- Xinqiang et al., ‘The Endocrine Disruptive Effects of Mercury,’ Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, vol.4, no.4, pp. 174–183, 2017.
- K, Neeti, K and T,Prakash, ‘Effects of heavy metal poisoning during pregnancy,’ International Research Journal of Environment Sciences, vol. 2, no.1, pp. 88-92, 2013.
- Dickma et al, ‘Hong Kong male subfertility links to mercury in human hair and fish,’ Sci Total Environ, vol. 214, pp.165-174, 1998.