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During his decade of travels in search of the keys to vibrant health, Weston A. Price, DDS, discovered that many traditional cultures put a very high value on caring for the next generation. These cultures understood that such care begins long before conception – for both future mothers and future fathers.
As he visited isolated indigenous groups around the world, Price learned that many of their young women of childbearing age, and often the young men, were fed special diets for months before marriage, with the goal of achieving optimum reproductive health through proper nutrition. Educating the youth about nutrition and other aspects of pregnancy and childbirth was emphasized in many of these cultures, which often encouraged the spacing of successive births to allow the mother’s body time to recover and replenish its nutrient stores. Following this traditional wisdom enhanced reproductive capacity, while giving future generations the best possible foundation for achieving ongoing health and vitality.
In today’s societies, however, much of this wisdom has been lost or ignored. Whole, natural foods have been replaced with unhealthful processed and packaged goods, and the traditional ways have made way for modern conveniences. It appears we are paying a steep price for these conveniences, given the relatively recent rise in rates of obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and infertility. We would do well to consider whether these troubles can be alleviated for the next generation through conscious preparation for conception by prospective parents.
Diets in transition
Price had the unique opportunity to visit indigenous groups at a time when the world was changing rapidly, and connections between formerly isolated peoples and modern civilization were affecting their diets, their cultures, and the lives and health of their children. In his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, he documented a number of groups around the world who were making the transition from their traditional diets to imported and processed foods, and he noted the effects on their offspring. In many cases, the contrast between the health and physical condition of children born before their parents were introduced to such foods and that of their siblings born after changes in their parents’ diet was remarkable. Deficiencies in dentition and facial structure, as well as physical deformities such as cleft palates and club feet, plagued many of those born after a change in diet. Price also documented animal studies that found additional problems, including blindness and reproductive difficulties, in offspring whose parents were not fed their natural diets.(pp296-320)
Price noted the fine physical condition of the isolated groups of people following traditional diets, who had “a high level of immunity to many of our modern degenerative processes, including tuberculosis, arthritis, heart disease, and affections [diseases] of the internal organs. When, however, these individuals have lost this high level of physical excellence, a definite lowering in their resistance to the modern degenerative processes has taken place.”(p296) Their deterioration in health and physical condition, according to Price, was connected to the diet of both the mothers and the fathers.
This state of deterioration seems to match the condition of many in the modernized world, where processed and fast food makes up a large portion of the typical diet preferred by men and women of reproductive age, and where what Price described as “modern degenerative processes” are increasing. Simply improving the diets of prospective parents would contribute greatly to their health and that of their future children.
Many of the same basic dietary principles apply to a couple planning a pregnancy as to others who want to optimize their health. However, there are a few special considerations for fertility and preconception preparation.
It’s helpful for the father-to-be to understand that spermatogenesis (development of the sperm) takes place over a period of approximately 74 days. The man’s diet during that time is particularly critical for the health of the future baby. The woman’s time frame is different. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, the dominant belief is that a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have intact. They are formed in her ovaries while she is in her mother’s womb, so a woman’s nutrition and health during pregnancy affects both her children and her daughters’ children.
For future fathers and mothers, then, it’s essential to pursue optimum preconception health through nutrition. Such care before conception can only reduce risks, not eliminate them, but even small reductions may make a huge difference in the health of the next generations. We can follow the example of the traditional cultures Price studied, by building up essential nutrient stores in the diets of young men and women long before they conceive children.
Price emphasizes the importance of vitamin A for both the prospective mother and the father, citing examples of animals born blind or deformed due to a deficient diet being given to either parent. In female rats, a lack of retinol, or preformed vitamin A (from animal sources), can result in “a disturbance in oestrus and ovulation, resulting in sterility,”(p306) and such deficiency in male domestic animals can also result in sterility.(p312) If pregnancy is achieved, low vitamin A levels can result in prolonged labor and even death of the newborn.
In humans, the addition of vitamin A to the diet can help ensure fertility and the physical health of future children. Beta carotene (from plant sources, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and red palm oil) is a precursor to vitamin A, and the bodies of most healthy people can convert carotenes to the vitamin, to varying degrees. However, some people with digestive disorders or other health conditions lack the enzymes necessary for conversion. Foods rich in preformed vitamin A include egg yolks, cod liver oil, organ meats, and raw dairy products from pastured animals.
There has been some discussion of too much vitamin A causing problems with pregnancy, but the evidence suggests that the trouble originates from supplementation with a synthetic form of the vitamin. It is nearly impossible to overdose on vitamin A from food sources.
The B-complex vitamins regulate blood sugar and mental processes, and a sufficient store of them is essential for optimum preconception health. Deficiencies in various B vitamins can cause sterility, physical defects in the baby, or stillbirth. Folate, one of the B vitamins, is of particular importance during pregnancy, as it is necessary for cell division. Folate deficiency can cause premature birth or miscarriage, as well as a range of birth defects, both physical and mental. In males, folate plays a role in fertility.
Contraceptive pills, certain medications, stress, and alcohol consumption all lower the levels of folate in the body. For the sake of both mother and baby, these levels need to be stable before pregnancy. Folic acid, a synthetic form of the vitamin, is added to many flours and baked goods and used in nutritional supplements, but folate from whole, natural foods is best. Brewer’s yeast, organ meats, nuts, leafy greens, salmon, whole raw milk, egg yolks, and whole grains (soaked or sprouted) are all good sources of folate. Although it is found in some carbohydrate-heavy foods, it’s interesting to note that an excess of carbohydrates actually depletes the body’s stores of folate. Vitamin B-rich animal foods are pastured raw dairy products and eggs, liver and other organ meats from pastured animals, wild-caught fish, and pastured poultry. Some of the B vitamins can also be found in wheat germ, brewer’s yeast, leafy greens, nuts, mushrooms, cruciferous vegetables, and whole grains (best eaten when soaked or sprouted).
Although vitamin C isn’t stored in the body and needs to be replenished regularly, its antioxidant and antimutagenic properties make it an important nutrient for the health of the parents prior to conception.
This vitamin fights inflammation, which is a serious enemy to fertility and fetal health. Fermented vegetables, leafy greens, peppers, sprouts, and most fruits, especially citrus, are excellent sources of it. Pith (the white, spongy part of citrus rind) contains bioflavonoids, which increase the effects of vitamin C.
A steroid hormone, vitamin D appears to boost fertility in women by balancing levels of progesterone and estrogen, regulating ovulation and menstrual cycles, and helping with fetal development. In males, vitamin D regulates the level of testosterone and helps with sperm development, quality, and count. The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunshine. It is also found in whole raw milk and butter from grassfed animals, eggs from pastured chickens, fatty fish, and cod liver oil. Especially in the winter or in low-sunlight areas, vitamin D3 supplements may be helpful, but it’s best to consult with a qualified health care professional about individual needs.
Vitamins A and E work together, with vitamin E preventing the oxidation of vitamin A. Adequate stores of vitamin E help prevent premature aging, which affects fertility. In animal studies, a pregnant female with low levels of vitamin E may miscarry or have difficult or prolonged labor and be unable to lactate, while her offspring may have any number of birth defects.(p331) In women, adding the vitamin to the diet increases the thickness of the endometrial lining, thereby improving the chances of a successful pregnancy. Vitamin E is also thought to improve fertility in men due to increased sperm quality and motility.6 Unrefined cold-pressed oils, whole raw milk, egg yolks, avocados, nuts, seeds, and especially wheat germ have high levels of vitamin E.
Essential for proper blood clotting, vitamin K is usually made by beneficial bacteria in the healthy large intestine. It is sometimes given to women entering labor as a precaution against excess bleeding, but building the body’s stores naturally is preferred. Leafy green vegetables are a good source of vitamin K1, the form found in plants. Vitamin K2 is the main storage form in animals. Some sources believe that vitamin K2 is what Price referred to as Activator X – the substance that works with vitamins A and D, and aids in utilization of minerals. Vitamin K2 helps proper formation of facial structure, protects brain health, and prevents degenerative diseases. It is found in organ meats and in butter, especially from cows grazing on green, growing grass.
Essential fatty acids
Linolenic, linoleic, and arachidonic acids are found in every portion of the human body. These essential fatty acids (EFAs) are essential for brain and nerve health, and they play a role in hormone production, activate enzymes, and assist in vitamin absorption, among other things. Without sufficient quantities of EFAs, ovulation and lactation will be compromised. If they are lacking in the fetus, blood cell degeneration and impaired brain development can result, potentially leading to behavioral problems or death. Cold-pressed, unrefined oils, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish are important sources of EFAs.
Many minerals are found in the body, and every one of them plays a role in maintaining health. Each works in conjunction with other nutrients; for example, vitamin C aids in assimilation of iron, and vitamin D maximizes calcium absorption. Magnesium also works with calcium, helps metabolize carbohydrates, and assists in enzyme activity. Its deficiency may be a factor in low-birth-weight babies. Magnesium deficiency is an all-too-common problem today, as most of our food is grown in deficient soil due, in part, to excessive use of synthetic fertilizers. Zinc deficiency is also common, and can lead to difficulties in childbirth and even stillbirth. Industrial processing robs the food of zinc, and contraceptive pills rob the body of zinc, leaving very little for use in pregnancy. Low selenium levels are associated with infertility in men.
For potential parents, any such deficiencies should be corrected before conceiving. A healthy body with a good diet is capable of normalizing mineral levels, as long as exposure to environmental toxins is minimal.
Foods providing essential minerals include brewer’s yeast, whole grains (best when soaked or sprouted), green vegetables, some fruits, wild-caught seafood, bone broth, whole raw dairy products, eggs, organ meats, and other products from pastured or properly fed animals. Contemporary knowledge about the roles of vitamins and minerals in the body lends credence to the practices of the indigenous cultures visited by Price. Their preconception diets included foods with high levels of these nutrients, such as organ meats, fish roe, kelp, and other seafoods, as well as dairy products from cows eating rapidly growing young grass.(pp236-237,362)
Maintaining a balanced diet of nutrient-dense foods that will spoil – and eating them before they do – is always a good place for prospective parents to start their preparation. This is the best way for the body to receive nutrients, but a couple planning a pregnancy may want to talk to a qualified health care professional about supplements that may help with fertility or addess specific health concerns. Supplementation is not a replacement for a healthful diet, but it can help ensure that future parents are receiving enough nutrients.
Physical condition of the father
In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price discussed several animal studies that emphasize the importance of the father’s health on his progeny: “These studies on domestic animals strongly emphasize two facts; first, that deformities among these animals are very similar to those that develop in humans, and second, that the defects are largely related to the original germ cells and that the male may provide the defect quite as well as the female. Several of the primitive [sic] races have understood and provided against these mishaps.”(p315) He noted several indigenous cultures that took care to feed special foods to the fathers as well as the mothers, but such practices were largely abandoned as outside influences changed their diets and lifestyles.
Today, researchers are rediscovering the importance of the father’s health and diet. A diet with adequate vitamins and minerals, including zinc and selenium, is needed for healthy sperm. Animal testing has shown that supplemental ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and zinc improve reproductive traits associated with high fertility, while folate deficiencies, along with low levels of vitamins B6 and B12, are linked with DNA damage to sperm, caused by elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine. Beyond these specific nutrients, a healthy diet for prospective fathers is much the same as a healthy diet for prospective mothers.
Healthy men have been known to father children well into their later years, and until recently, it was believed that men’s fertility and semen quality did not decrease with age. However, research shows that the obstacles presented to the male in contributing to a successful pregnancy become more challenging as he grows older. Chromosomal abnormalities in sperm may increase in frequency in men as young as their 30s, potentially affecting both sperm function and early embryonic development. Sperm motility and other semen characteristics may decline.
An abundant supply of healthy sperm is essential for conception, and plays a larger role than some might expect in a successful pregnancy. It is now thought that 40 percent of miscarriages are a direct result of abnormal sperm. Since sperm is in constant production, it should not be surprising that the health of the father affects the quality of the sperm, but we are just beginning to learn how many factors impact sperm health.
Chemotherapy, radiation, and anabolic steroid use can also affect the sperm negatively
Many studies over the past few decades have reported a drastic decrease in sperm count worldwide, and this phenomenon may be attributable to the adverse effects of environmental and lifestyle factors. It has long been known that smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, and drug use have a detrimental effect on a potential father’s potency and fertility, and the health of his future child. Chemotherapy, radiation, and anabolic steroid use can also affect the sperm negatively. It is ironic that some of the substances thought to improve virility and sexual performance in men have the opposite effect; for example, steroids and supplemental testosterone (patches, pills, and shots) depress hormone secretion and thereby interfere with normal sperm production. Those planning fatherhood should cease the use of steroids and testosterone, which usually allows sperm production to normalize, a process that can take at least 74 days.
The proliferation of environmental chemicals is also affecting the quantity and quality of sperm. For example, studies show a correlation between the widespread use of pesticides on our food crops and a decline in fertility. One such study shows that men who were exposed to pesticides had a three to nine times greater risk of abnormal semen parameters, with a decline in sperm count and motility. Many environmental chemicals are weak estrogens, which may be associated with the declining testosterone levels seen over the last few decades, and which are thought to have played a role in the drop in mean sperm counts from 113 million/ml in 1940 to 66 million/ml in 1990. During this time period, exposure to environmental contaminants such as DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and exhaust fumes became widespread. Certain compounds in detergents, textiles, paints, and plastics used in many consumer products from food wrappings and can linings to dental fillings may also be increasing the amount of estrogen-like compounds found in our bodies.
Exposure to radiation poses another threat to male fertility. The amount of radiation in our environment has increased since the invention of televisions, microwaves, x-rays, and nuclear weapons, and the construction of power stations. It has been proven that radiation reduces sperm production in adult males, and there is some evidence to support the theory that low-grade electromagnetic frequencies from cell phones can contribute to low sperm count. In a review of nine original studies that examined the effects of cell phone radiation on human sperm, eight reported adverse effects on at least one of four outcomes: sperm count, motility, viability, or morphology. Cell phone radiation was associated with decreased sperm motility in six of the eight studies, and reduced viability was seen in three studies. Based upon such data, some of the researchers recommended that men who wish to become fathers do not carry their cell phones in their pants pockets.
There are additional factors to which prospective fathers should pay attention. Trauma, infection (including sexually transmitted infections, or STIs), and chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity in the father should be addressed prior to conception. These can affect fertility or even alter gene expression in the offspring, including markers of premature aging, cancer, and chronic degenerative disease.
Physical condition of the mother
For women, a healthy and fit body is much more likely to accept fertilization, properly nourish a developing fetus, and avoid miscarriage. There are many factors that work together to support this process, just as there are many that work against it. For example, age can be a detriment at either end of the spectrum.
Women’s pelvic bones are not fully developed until they are about 18 years old, and the risk of cesarean section is especially high for young mothers. Teenagers do not often have the nutritional stores or the emotional maturity needed to produce a baby with optimum health. Babies born to teenage mothers are at risk for premature delivery, low birth weight, and medical complications. However, increasing numbers of women are choosing to have their first child later in life. The average age of first-time mothers at childbirth rose from 21.4 years old in 1970 to 25.6 years old in 2011. More and more women are delaying their first child until after the age of 35, which can result in fertility problems. With age, a woman’s ovaries release fewer eggs, and as she nears menopause, her chances of conception decrease. Aging also increases the chances of miscarriage and of having a child with a genetic abnormality.
Women who are obese (with a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or greater) when conceiving have an increased risk of spontaneous abortion, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, cesarean delivery, incision complications, postpartum infection, thromboembolic disease, perinatal death, and maternal death. Their offspring are at elevated risk for birth defects and childhood obesity. Conversely, underweight women (with a BMI of 18.4 or less) or those who exercise excessively may have amenorrhea or other conditions that can complicate conception. If an underweight woman is able to conceive, she may not have the physical reserves to carry a developing fetus to full term, and may deprive the baby of optimum health. For these reasons, it is in the best interests of both the potential mother and the baby for the woman’s weight to be brought within a normal range before conception. A moderate exercise program can help with increasing overall fitness, building muscle, and normalizing weight.
As with potential fathers, any illness or infection in the mother-to-be should be addressed prior to conception. STIs can severely impact fertility of the parents and the health of their future offspring. Diabetes, hypothyroidism, cardiovascular disease, asthma, anemia, and other chronic illnesses should be controlled before attempts to conceive.
Oral health is an often-overlooked factor in preparation for parenthood. There is an association between periodontal disease and adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as low birth weight, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and preterm birth. Some evidence shows that poor oral health, particularly periodontal disease, affects the maternal and fetal immune response, possibly leading to premature labor. Oral infections may cause inflammation throughout the body, resulting in serious problems for both mother and baby.
Prior use of hormonal birth control methods should also be taken into consideration when planning pregnancy. Birth control pills upset the balance of copper and zinc levels in the body, and a woman who becomes pregnant shortly after stopping their use is likely to start the pregnancy in a zinc-deficient state, which will progressively worsen.(pp14,170-175) This condition can hamper fetal development, cause postpartum depression and lactation problems, and result in feeding disorders and developmental difficulties in the child. The pill may also cause dangerously heightened levels of vitamin A in the mother, while depleting her body of other vitamins and minerals. It also destroys beneficial gastrointestinal bacteria that are necessary for a properly functioning immune system in the mother and that will transfer to the baby during natural childbirth and breastfeeding. However, discontinuing its use for six months to a year before conception usually allows sufficient time to reverse much of the damage to the mother’s body.
Some experts recommend the spacing of consecutive births by at least two years to avoid risks to both the mother and the baby. Another suggestion is that at least six months elapse between weaning one child and conceiving the next.(p16) Price observed that, in the traditional cultures he studied, the interval between pregnancies generally ranged from two and one-half to four years.(p363)
Studies have shown that as women age, their reproductive organs become less tolerant to radiation. The main focus of these studies has been radiation therapy, but cumulative exposure to radiation from sources such as X-rays and mammograms may also impact reproductive health or lead to birth defects. It may be prudent for women to avoid as much radiation as possible from all sources, including computers, microwaves, cell phones, and other devices during pregnancy and when planning for conception.
Discontinuing the use of potentially dangerous products … should be part of a preconception plan.
Maternal chemical exposure is also a significant consideration. Cleaning supplies, pesticides, cosmetics, and plastics can all contain compounds, such as estrogen disruptors, that are injurious to health and, as with potential fathers, can affect fertility. With a woman, however, continued exposure during pregnancy can further compromise the health of the unborn baby. Discontinuing the use of potentially dangerous products – and ridding the house of them – should be part of a preconception plan.
Cigarette smoking affects a woman’s reproductive health in several ways. It has been proven to quicken onset of menopause by an average of two years, increases risk of infertility, and is linked with both lower fecundity rates and adverse reproductive outcomes. It is also associated with an elevated risk of ectopic pregnancy in the fallopian tube. A link between maternal exposure to secondhand smoke and decreased birth weight has been documented, and recent studies suggest an association with delayed conception, altered menstrual cycling, early miscarriage, preterm delivery, and congenital malformations. There is also evidence that fetal exposure to maternal smoking may be associated with reproductive effects in adulthood.
Experts say that women trying to conceive should refrain from drinking alcohol. Whether in the form of spirits, wine, or beer, alcohol appears to affect reproductive hormones, making monthly cycles longer and increasing the possibility of anovulatory cycles (menstruation without ovulation). After conception, maternal alcohol use – even before the mother knows she is pregnant – leads to great risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as other negative outcomes.
Illicit drug use is also associated with many problems that could affect the offspring or lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death. Birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome, preterm birth, and neurological, developmental, and behavioral difficulties in the baby can be caused by drug use.
Many prescription drugs are also problematic for pregnant women, and it is best to consult with a qualified medical practitioner on the subject prior to conception. Regaining optimum health through nutrition and eliminating the use of prescription drugs, when possible, before attempting to conceive is the safest route. Many of the longterm effects of drugs on the next generation are simply not well understood.
Some herbal remedies, which under other circumstances would be safe, can also affect fertility. Even culinary herbs such as rosemary, which is safe when consumed in amounts typically found in food, may trigger miscarriage when used in higher, medicinal quantities. It is advisable to consult with a qualified health care practitioner about the use of specific herbal remedies during pregnancy and while trying to conceive.
The study of epigenetics may be a recent development, but scientists have known since the mid-twentieth century that what a mother experiences during pregnancy can affect her progeny for several generations. Traumatic ancestral experiences may impact the neurological development of future generations, potentially increasing risk of neuropsychiatric disorders, including phobias, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Fetal development is greatly affected by the mother’s emotional health, and extreme emotional stress can contribute to amenorrhea, which can prevent conception altogether. It’s important for a woman to have a stable emotional base – a nurturing environment in which the developing baby can thrive – before planning a pregnancy.
Adequate sleep helps the mind and body cope with stress and allows time for rejuvenation. It can help prepare a woman for bearing a child, but sleep aids – even supplemental melatonin – may cause problems with conception or may be unsafe during pregnancy. Better options to induce sleep include avoiding exercise, television, and computers for two hours before bedtime; taking warm baths with Epsom salts (for the added benefit of magnesium) just before bed; and drinking warm, raw milk from pastured cows. There are many factors to consider when planning for parenthood, but good nutrition is among the most important. Price emphasized that “studies on domestic animals strongly emphasize the necessity that both parents shall have adequate nutrition before conception occurs and subsequently for the mother.”(p314)
Contemporary research on humans supports this finding. For parents-to-be, preconception planning involves getting the future mother and father into optimal physical and emotional states, to assure their children the best possible start in life and set the stage for lifelong optimum health.
About the Author
Alice Abler is a health, food, and sustainable living writer with a background in art and design. She has lived in several countries, learning about the culture and the food, and now resides in Southern California, where she enjoys studying and incorporating age-old principles of permaculture and sustainability at her home. She is the Life and Health editor for Vision.org and maintains a website at ReNourishment.org.
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health & Healing
Spring 2014 Volume 38 Number 1
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