Health begins at conception.
When we’re pregnant, a certain chain of events occurs: decorating plans are made for the baby’s room, a baby shower with lots of presents, and a long list of purchases for the new addition to the family. Most of our energy goes toward planning for after the baby’s birth and mostly entails what to buy, but the baby’s true health and happiness is not affected by how many things she has or how pretty her room is. The health of both the mother and father at the time of conception and the mother’s health throughout pregnancy will shape this baby’s life.
New research and books are embarking on the idea that a baby’s health starts at conception and that the mother’s diet and lifestyle will affect the baby’s destiny—everything from income level to mental illness. Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, featured in the New York Times, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape Our Lives, explores the nature-nurture dynamic and how nurture begins in the womb and is affected by everything from how the mother eats to how much stress she experiences. While the idea that the health of the mother during pregnancy affects the baby’s well-being isn’t completely foreign to us, the notion that a father’s sperm has an influence on the health of the baby is a rather new one. In a recent study published on Wired.com, researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales found that when male mice were fed a diet high in unhealthy fats and then mated with healthy, lean females, the females produced offspring who at six weeks of age became glucose-intolerant, an indicator of a future onset of diabetes.
The concept of health starting at conception is a relatively new one in the West, but it has ancient roots in Ayurveda, a form of holistic alternative medicine that is the traditional system of medicine in India. Within this system, individuals are described as possessing different constitutions. By definition, constitution is a person’s physical state with regard to vitality, health and strength. The Ayurvedic concept states that we are born with our constitution and we cannot change it. Constitution is inherited in the womb and determined by the quality of our mother’s egg and our father’s sperm, as well as the health of our mother throughout the pregnancy. While the egg has been with the mother since the time she was born and carries with it her lifetime of eating, thoughts, experiences, and lifestyle, the sperm is regenerated constantly, so what the father is eating, thinking and feeling only around the time of conception will generally affect the baby. (Think of talents running in families or the words “I’m so my mother”—these are the imprints that took place even before birth). When we’re thinking about getting pregnant or if we already are pregnant, being mindful of the food we’re eating, the water we’re drinking, the air we’re breathing, exposure to stress, and fostering a relaxing environment will directly impact the baby’s destiny.
Here are 10 ways to have an enjoyable pregnancy (yes, it’s possible!) and increase the chances of producing a healthy baby who will grow up to be a happy, successful adult.
- Nosh on nutrient-rich foods. A diet focused on whole foods, like a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans, ensures we’re getting all the vitamins and nutrients we need. Organic is best, local is even better, but eating them is the most important thing, so wherever we are on the spectrum is fine—it’s about adding more of these whole foods and eating less meat, dairy, processed foods, sugar and coffee. Later in pregnancy, the baby will actually be tasting the foods we eat through the amniotic fluid (no surprise, they love sweets—so pack in the carrots!), so expand their palette now by eating a variety of healthy foods. Fiber is particularly important in pregnancy as it prevents the common symptom of constipation, and foods high in fiber, like whole grains, leafy greens and beans are also nutrient-dense. Dark leafy greens should be a focus since they are some of the most nutrient-dense foods, packed with calcium, folate, chlorophyll and antioxidants. (Kale is my favorite, cooks in under one minute and it’s one of the most nutritious foods at the grocery store.) When we’re eating leafy greens in our daily diet, we are getting a sufficient amount of dietary folate. While dietary folate found in whole foods can decrease the risk of cancer, folic acid in supplements can actually increase the risk of breast cancer by 40%. An omega-3 essential fatty acid supplement such as fish oil could be helpful if we are not eating salmon (a low-mercury fish high in omega-3’s) a few times a week. Omega-3 essential fatty acids contribute to cognitive development and have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which prevent aging, depression, and cancer.
- Sip clean water. Water is the biggest untapped tool for helping all ailments. We can live for weeks without food, but would die within days without water. When we aren’t getting enough of it, basic physical symptoms like hunger, cravings, and headaches can occur. Starting with a couple glasses in the morning helps hydrate the body after a night’s sleep and is an easy way to get it in before we get too busy or distracted. Adding fresh lemon juice to warm water is also a great way to combat morning sickness, alkalize the system if we’ve had more sugar or food out than usual and is a mini master cleanse. Drinking about half our body weight in ounces is a good way to measure what we need, but listen to your body and see what feels right. Pure, clean water is important—avoid unnecessary toxins. Spring water is an option, but if you want to skip a lot of plastic bottles, investing in a high-quality filter can be the easiest option.
- Breathe clean air. Living in an environment with less cars and more trees would be ideal, but it’s not always a reality. So if you’re in the city and a walk across the Brooklyn bridge or a weekend in the country is your only quality time with nature, an air-purifier is the next best thing. Leaving shoes at the door is also an easy way to cut down pollution in the home, especially in small spaces like the city.
- Get rubbed the right way. The health benefits of massage are well-known. Along with being an antidote to stress, boosting immunity and promoting overall relaxation, you can add a twist. In addition to a visit to your favorite spa for a weekly prenatal massage, you and your partner can join a prenatal massage class that teaches him how to give you a simple home massage (the perfect excuse to get spoiled every day!). This will especially come in handy toward the last couple months when you need extra love and attention as well as after the baby is born while you are healing. While you’re getting the rubbing that you need, this also gives your partner an opportunity to be more intimately involved in the process leading up to birth. Having your partner participate in a more “hands-on” manner enables him to make a smoother transition into the new and exciting life that lies ahead.
- Move your body. Any form of exercise you love, even daily walking will have a big impact on your energy, sleep and mood. Since yoga is so accessible and has a full spectrum of health benefits, it’s a convenient go-to for something active. Joining a prenatal class will give you the added attention you need, give you a chance to meet other women sharing the same experience as you, and address common ailments in pregnancy such as back aches, sciatica, headaches, swelling, digestion and fatigue. The added bonus is that yoga prepares you for labor through increasing breath awareness, which will manage stress and give you more control mentally, physically and emotionally.
- Be creative. My mother was passionate about cooking and photography when she was pregnant with me, and infused both endeavors with love and creativity. My life has slowly revealed that I’m much the same. Inspiring and uplifting activities, like reading, listening to music, any activity you love (even working) will become a part of your baby, so give yourself that time and take advantage of the positive impact it will have.
- Know thyself. Keeping a journal by your bed and writing in it in the morning when you’re half awake before you’re fully conscious can give you access to your unconscious mind and the deeper part of yourself that guide you. Another activity can be productive is writing things you’re grateful for, which is an easy tool to reframe negative thoughts and focus on the positives, which can increase happiness long-term. Huffingtonpost.com recently published an article on positive thoughts and longevity, discussing various studies on how our thoughts and emotions not only add years to our lives, but even play an active role in our daily lives like increasing our immunity against the common cold.
- Learn to meditate. You’re never too busy or too normal to meditate. While it might seem like something complicated or daunting, it doesn’t have to be. Explore what works for you—find a teacher if it might help get you over that initial hurdle. Sit cross-legged on the ground or in a chair and breathe in and out deeply and think of a mantra to repeat slowly in your mind to help it find rest (“I am” is an easy one). Then, next time you find yourself in a bad mood or stressful situation, you can tap into your calm, centered being and take deep breaths rather than turning to the usual, often counterproductive behaviors to deal with stress, whether it’s eating, arguing, or negative self-talk to name a few.
- Get support. To ensure a rejuvenating experience, especially toward the end of pregnancy and after birth, don’t be afraid to ask for support from friends, family and your community, to help with meals, clean, spend time with the baby or anything else that would leave you to rest and relax. Having a community of people around you who love and care for you will also be nurturing the baby.
- Laugh. Without humor, life is much too serious. With humor, we can survive anything.