Preparing to get pregnant? Now’s the time to optimize your health
As many of you know, I’m the mother of three. These blessings didn’t come without struggles. I’ve lived through recurrent pregnancy loss and other complications, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about my own health and vitality.
Because of these experiences, I’m passionate about helping other women in this phase of life. Much of my clinical practice is focused on helping couples who are trying to conceive improve their health so that they can have better fertility and pregnancy outcomes. It’s also part of the reason I co-founded Hey Mami, a platform dedicated to helping women achieve a happier and healthier mamihood.
I want you to know: If you’re thinking about conceiving, there’s a lot you can do to help with fertility, successful pregnancy outcomes, and the health of your precious babe.
And one of the most important things you and your partner can do is limit your exposure to toxic environmental chemicals.
In fact, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology along with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine published a formal committee opinion on this in 2013:
“Patient exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and other stressors is ubiquitous, and preconception and prenatal exposure to toxic environmental agents can have a profound and lasting effect on reproductive health across the life course.”1
Yet, this complicated topic doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. Especially when it comes to preconception counseling.
Proof that toxins are a real problem for pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant
We live in a toxic world where exposures to chemicals and heavy metals are pervasive. In other words: they’re everywhere! They’re in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the personal care products we slather on our skin every single day.
A 2004 study detected 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of babies, including mercury, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, organochlorine pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Of those chemicals 180 are known carcinogens, 217 are neurotoxins, and 208 are known to cause birth defects or developmental abnormalities in animal studies.2
In another study, randomly selected samples of cord blood tested positive nine of 10 times for bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial petrochemical and synthetic estrogen used in plastics.3
Does this seem a little overwhelming or shocking? That’s because it is, and not enough parents are warned about it. However, I will be sharing what you can do to protect yourself (and your baby) coming up.
How toxin exposure affects babies
While exposure to the exact chemical cocktail referenced in the 2004 study above has never formally been studied before and after pregnancy, there is no doubt that the presence of that many harmful toxins in cord blood samples is a bad thing.
We know that a growing fetus is uniquely vulnerable to mom’s toxic exposures through placental transfer.
“Not long ago scientists thought that the placenta shielded cord blood — and the developing baby — from most chemicals and pollutants in the environment. But now we know that at this critical time when organs, vessels, membranes and systems are knit together from single cells to finished form in a span of weeks, the umbilical cord carries not only the building blocks of life, but also a steady stream of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides that cross the placenta as readily as residues from cigarettes and alcohol. This is the human “body burden” — the pollution in people that permeates everyone in the world, including babies in the womb.”4
In 2018, The Endocrine Society presented research on how exposure to BPA during pregnancy, even at very low levels, can lead to altered brain development and behavior of offspring later in life.8
How toxins affect fertility
Environmental toxins can also affect fertility, egg health, and semen quality in a big way.
In the Scientific Statement of The Endocrine Society, they present gobs of evidence that endocrine disrupting chemicals have negative effects on the male and female reproductive system.
Endocrine disruptors are implicated in a whole host of hormonal issues and reproductive disorders in women including:9
- polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS),
- premature ovarian failure (POF),
- decreased ovarian reserve,
- uterine fibroids,
- endometriosis, and
- ectopic pregnancy
- disruption of female reproductive tract development
Chemicals and other environmental toxins can also directly cause fertility challenges
Environmental toxins can damage your eggs, cause impaired ovarian function and infertility.10
Some specific examples of these toxins include:
- BPA which has been shown to damage reproductive cells in animal studies.11
- Pesticides and herbicides which put men and women at higher risk for reproductive issues including reduced sperm quality12 and infertility or poor birth outcomes in women.13
- Cigarette smoke exposure which has been shown to decrease success rate in IVF, decrease ovarian reserves, and increase miscarriage rate.14
- Phthalates which have been shown to interrupt the reproductive cycle thereby reducing the chances of becoming pregnant for up to nine months in animal studies.15
While not all these studies have been conducted in humans, the potential parallels are concerning… especially given our daily exposure to things like pesticides, BPA, etc.
The male factor in preconception/fertility detox
Don’t underestimate the power of a man’s role in a healthy pregnancy and successful conception.
Male-factor infertility is a real issue. “A third of all cases of infertility are because of a problem in the male partner. In another third of cases, infertility is due to a combination of male and female problems.”16
Specifically, sperm count and quality can be negatively affected by environmental toxins as outlined above.17
So guys…all of the advice below applies to you, too.
Postpartum and lactation—chemicals and other toxins in breastmilk
Breastfeeding is yet another reason to minimize exposure to toxins.
Unfortunately, the toxic body burden continues to be mobilized into mother’s milk during the postpartum period. This is best studied with regard to maternal lead exposure and subsequent lead levels in mother’s milk. More recently the FDA has warned against the presence of mercury in breastmilk, related to dental amalgams (silver fillings) – more on this below.
According to the CDC’s Guidelines for the Identification and Management of Lead Exposure in Pregnant and Lactating Women,
“Bone lead stores are mobilized in pregnancy and lactation for women with prior lead exposure, which is a concern since lead released into maternal blood and breast milk can adversely affect the fetus or newborn.”18
A 2008 article in Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, reads:
“Lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and other potentially toxic metals that are dispersed throughout the environment also have bioaccumulative features and thus are of concern to the nursing infant. The presence of lead and mercury in human milk has been extensively studied.”19
But remember, this problem is more global than lead and mercury.
New Warnings for Dental Amalgams in Women Trying to Conceive
Recently the FDA updated their recommendations on silver fillings, called amalgams. Dental amalgam is a mixture of metals which include mercury. This has been on our radar in the functional medicine community for a long time, and I’m glad to see this update.
“Although the available evidence does not show the exposure to mercury from dental amalgam will lead to adverse health effects in the general population, exposure to mercury may pose a greater health risk in the groups of people listed below who may be more susceptible to potential adverse effects generally associated with mercury”20
The FDA has identified these high risk groups to include:
- Pregnant women and their developing fetus
- Women who are planning to become pregnant
- Nursing women and their newborns and infants
- Children especially those look younger than 6 years of age
- People with pre-existing neurological disease such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. Seizure disorder and migraines are also neurological diseases.
- People with impaired kidney function
HOWEVER — Don’t just run to the dentist demanding these things come out! I would highly recommend working with a dentist who is trained in the safe removal of mercury amalgams.
Why? Because the FDA also acknowledges that much of the exposure we get comes from low levels of mercury in the form of a vapor which can be inhaled and absorbed by the lungs.
Removal of amalgams without proper protection and ventilation might expose you to even higher levels of this. Better safe than sorry.
Turns out there’s an entire Academy just for this, and it’s called the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology (IAOMT). They have a protocol to help limit your exposure to mercury during removal (this also protects dental professionals, by the way!) called The Safe Mercury Amalgam Removal Technique (SMART).
Given the importance of safe mercury removal, I’d recommend using their dentist finder to locate an experienced professional in your area.
Note that IAOMT does NOT recommend disruption of amalgams while pregnant or nursing:
“Due to mercury releases, the IAOMT recommends that polishing, placement, removal, or any disruption of a dental mercury amalgam filling should not be conducted upon patients who are pregnant or lactating and should not be done by dental personnel who are pregnant or lactating.”21
When to start a fertility/preconception detox
You’ll want to begin detoxing at least 3-6 months prior to conception…3 months being the bare minimum.
Why? Because your follicles are recruited every 3 months, which means you’ll get the best chance at healthier eggs. Plus, toxins accumulate over years and are stored in your fat, bones, and organs so you want to give those toxins plenty of time to leave your body before conception.
Women with conditions suggestive of environmental toxicity (multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, autoimmunity), known toxic exposures, or genetic polymorphisms like MTHFR, may want to work with a functional medicine physician on this. We have comprehensive tests to measure the toxic body burden and guide appropriate detoxification.
If you don’t have a bare minimum of 3 months to do a preconception detox, you’re already pregnant, or you’re nursing do not attempt to detox!!
Repeat, pregnancy and lactation are NOT the time to detox. What you can do is take steps to reduce your exposure to toxins (which we’ll cover coming up), which will greatly benefit you and your baby.
How to naturally detox and prepare your body for pregnancy
Many women can detox and prepare for pregnancy by following these suggestions:
- identifying and removing toxic exposures;
- eating a healthy diet with plenty of organic fruits and vegetables and clean protein;
- supporting the body’s own natural detoxification processes, which means regular (daily) bowel movements, good hydration with filtered water, and daily movement/ exercise;
- using high quality supplements, including a prenatal vitamin with pre-methylated folate (i.e. methylfolate not folic acid);
- avoiding Tylenol (acetaminophen) which depletes glutathione (the body’s master antioxidant) and has been linked to higher rates of autism.22
- limiting other types of medications
Toxic body burden is all about decreasing what’s coming in, while maximizing what’s going out (excretion). An excellent place to start is by cleaning up any exposures, and since home is a place you can control, I say start there.
Optimize your home environment
This is a complex topic, and I’ve broken it all down in my free guide 12 Ways to Detox Your Home (get it here!). In this guide I outline how to:
- filter your water
- filter your air
- improve ventilation
- address indoor mold and moisture issues
- create a sleep sanctuary
- dust and vacuum regularly
- clean up your cleaning products
- clean up your personal care products
- clean up your kitchen
- eat clean food
- avoid spraying your home and lawn
- mitigate emfs
You’ll find many of the products I use at home and recommend to patients on my Trusted Products page. This includes my favorite nontoxic cleaning products, water filter, air filter, non-toxic mattress options, and even toothpaste.
Detox protocols before getting pregnant
Again, pregnancy and lactation are NOT the time to detox. But if you have the foresight to start this process well before trying to conceive (3-6 months…3 months being the bare minimum), it’s ideal to work with a practitioner who can help measure the toxic body burden and guide appropriate and safe preconception/fertility detoxification. At this stage, I’d also consider safe removal of amalgam fillings with a qualified and experienced dentist.
I don’t have a one-size-fits-all detox protocol in my practice, as each patient gets an individualized plan. But some of the recommendations I make to help upregulate detoxification include:
- Milk thistle/ liver support
- Binders like charcoal and clay
- Coffee enemas
- Given the evidence of toxic body burden in women of childbearing age and how those toxins can impact fertility, pregnancy, and the fetus it is wise to consider detoxing before pregnancy.
- Begin your detox at least 3-6 months before activity trying to conceive (the more time you give yourself the better).
- You can make your detox more targeted and effective by working with a functional medicine physician (like me!), because we can identify which toxins need to go, customize a protocol, and track your progress.
- The first place to begin is by cleaning up your food by eating healthy, organic foods that promote detox and by removing harmful chemicals from your home environment.
- Removal of dental amalgams by an experienced dentist (preferably certified by the IAMOT), which contain mercury, should be considered within that 3-6 month (or more) window of safe preconception detox.
- Have you missed the 3-6 month window, are already pregnant or breastfeeding? You can still make big strides to protect yourself and your baby by limiting your exposure to toxins, chemicals, and pesticides by following the diet and home optimization recommendations.
Ready to commit to a healthier body for you and your precious baby?
Preconception/fertility detox is one of my specialties as a functional medicine physician. Click here to learn more about becoming a patient and to book a consultation.