You might be surprised to find out just how little attention is paid to this concept in our culture. Yet, today, with 1 in 6 children affected by either a neurological, behavioral or developmental disorder (including 1 in 50 with autism) and 53% of our kids affected by one or more chronic illness (such as asthma, ADHD and allergies), it is time to examine this concept more closely.
Having worked with hundreds of children with health and developmental problems, I’ve seen the amount of effort it takes on the part of parents to improve their child’s condition once they’ve developed a disorder. Not all illnesses are preventable of course, but many parents who have worked hard at addressing their child’s physical or behavioral issues have commented “if I only knew then, what I know now, I would have made different choices.” This article is dedicated to them and their tireless efforts to help their kids achieve their full potential and attain the best possible health outcome. But it is also dedicated to the concept of prevention. Although there are no guarantees in life, if one can optimize their health prior to conceiving, common sense dictates, they will maximize their chances of carrying, birthing and raising a child unencumbered by ill health.
According to natural birth advocate Tasha Murphy: “Approximately 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, but for the remainder of babies who are consciously conceived, couples cannot underestimate their ability to influence the health of their future child. Since decades of research has shown us that certain lifestyle choices (including optimal nutrition and avoiding toxic chemicals) directly influence the health of the male and female reproductive system as well as the health of the baby, it is to a couple’s advantage to educate themselves on what those lifestyle factors are, and make the necessary changes. It may be the greatest gift you give your children”.
Most of us are already aware that there are an array of factors at play in the days and weeks immediately following conception that are crucial for the healthy development of the fetus. Poor diet, tobacco use, environmental toxins, STDs, alcohol, drugs etc. all pose a threat to the child’s healthy development. However, what we don’t often consider or discuss (and yet it may be of equal, if not greater significance) is the health status of the mother (and father to a degree) prior to becoming pregnant. Thankfully times are changing and many savvy individuals contemplating parenthood are educating themselves regarding the role the environment and nutrition play in minimizing complications associated with pregnancy, labor and birth. They also realize that in order to tip the scales in favor of having the healthiest child possible, it makes sense for both of them to be in an optimal state of health prior to conceiving.
Some Startling Statistics:
The CDC reports that 31% of pregnancies are complicated by maternal health issues and 12% of all babies are born prematurely (which greatly increases their risk for developing health and or neurological problems later on.) (1) The National Research Council in Washington says: 7% of all couples are now sterile, 50% of all pregnancies end in a stillborn, miscarriage, birth defects or a chronic health problem, and finally, in spite of all our medical advances, 7 out of every 1000 US newborns die, (which gives us a ranking in the world of 34thth for infant mortality rate, tying us with Poland and Slovakia) (2). I don’t know about you, but I find these statistics startling, more than a little scary, and completely unacceptable! The good news lies in the fact that emerging science, combined with common sense provide more tools for our society to change these statistics.
The role of environmental toxins:
Toxic chemicals have increased at an exponential rate for the past 50 years, with an average of 10 new chemicals introduced each day. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 87,000 chemicals are in widespread use and 2.2 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed on crops each year. We also know 85 billion pounds of plastic products are produced annually. The average American home contains 3-10 gallons of hazardous materials and 85% of the chemicals that are registered have never tested for impact on the human body. The number of studies pointing to the detrimental health effects of environmental toxins (with many of them indicating a causal relationship with behavioral and developmental issues) in recent years has been astounding (3).
The most recent report from the CDC (December 2006) found the average American had 116 of the 148 synthetic compounds tested for including the infamous dioxin, polycyclic hydrocarbons and organochlorine pesticides. Further studies revealed these same substances were also in human milk, placenta and umbilical cord blood, and in the blood and body fat of newborns. Phthalates, found in hundreds of products including soft vinyl plastic toys, shampoos, hair spray, nail polish, perfumes, new cars, pharmaceuticals and deodorants are known hormone disrupters that can cause sperm and genital problems in males and they were found in 75% of human urines tested.
A study from the Environmental California Research and Policy Center dated 2/27/07 revealed that BPA leached from five out of five plastic baby bottles tested and all five brands leached this substance at levels found to cause harm in laboratory animals. (4) Independent lab tests reported by EWG found levels of BPA in over half of the canned products tested at levels high enough to cause birth defects. The highest levels were in chicken soup, ravioli and infant formula!
Studies have also shown that children who live closer to agricultural fields sprayed with pesticides have an increased incidence of autism that is directly related to the amount of pesticide usage. (5)
When I taught childbirth classes and worked in Labor and Delivery in the early 80’s the false belief was that the placenta protected the fetus from exposure to these chemicals. We now know that is not the case. The fetus is not as protected by the placenta due to its immature and porous blood brain barrier and the exposure pound for pound is greater than for those of adults The Environmental Working Group evaluated newborn babies born in U.S. hospitals in August and September 2004 and found an average of 200 chemicals and pollutants in their umbilical cord blood (6). Many of these toxins are known to be carcinogenic and, given a newborn’s porous and immature blood-brain barrier, the toxins are especially detrimental to the newborn’s neurological system.
Although I do not think every single childhood illness or disorder is preventable, I do believe minimizing our exposure to toxic substances by greening our homes and lives and laying an optimal nutritional foundation prior to conceiving can shift the odds in favor of a healthier outcome. This is why for years I have half-jokingly told my young female clients and daughters: “give me your body for one year prior to getting pregnant, and I may be able to save you from the heartache and stress that so many parents of sick or disabled children know only too well.” What I am suggesting of course is that with my help or the help of another naturally oriented practitioner, they address their nutritional needs, remove toxic substances, test for elevated levels of heavy metals such as mercury, lead or aluminum and assess whether or not an overgrowth of candida or some other intestinal pathogen might be wreaking havoc on their health. If there is a history of migraines, fatigue, depression, yeast infections, PMS, acne, constipation etc. I’m proposing these issues be addressed by implementing a naturally-based, nutritional approach that may include dietary changes, supplementation and a detoxification program. My goal for my daughters (and for all young women in their child bearing years) is to have them be in an optimal state of health prior to conceiving so they can increase the likelihood of having a uncomplicated pregnancy, labor, birth and the healthiest baby possible!
Tips for Getting Healthy Before Getting Pregnant:
- Optimal Nutrition: In addition to working with a naturally-oriented health care practitioner for an individualized health assessment and testing, one of the best things a woman considering pregnancy can do is give herself six months to a year to “clean up” her diet and lifestyle. Laying the foundation of health by putting herself in optimal shape nutritionally prior to conceiving will go a long way in minimizing the chance of miscarriage, or developing other complications of pregnancy and delivery. Specifically reduce or eliminate alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine and shift from a diet based on processed nutrient- deficient white foods: (sugar, white bread, pasta, pizza, bagels etc) to one that contains more organic natural foods including colorful vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean sources of organic protein and healthy fats. (7) Eating a diet rich in colorful organically grown vegetables and fruits will provide an adequate intake of antioxidants to fight off the damaging effects of free radicals. Juicing organic vegetables is a great alternative if one has difficulty consuming the recommended 4 ½ cups of vegetables and fruit per day. Avoid all genetically modified food (non GMO) . Also avoid uncooked meats.
- Minimize Exposure to Toxins: Because the fetus will be exposed to the preexisting toxins that a mother’s body contains, prior to pregnancy do what is reasonable to “green” your home and minimize exposure to toxins in your food, cleaning products, personal care products etc. If remodeling is planned and or a new home is being constructed, try to select no VOC paints, sustainable wood as opposed to composites and resin based products. Allow out- gassing of new materials. If at all possible: purchase a mattress and bedding that is free of PBDEs and Antimony. For additional information on greening your home & life go to the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Website at www.DIENVIRO.org, obtain the Green This! series of books by Deirdre Imus and to access a complete resource guide on organic, personal care, household products, lawn care alternatives &water filtration systems go to www.stocktonfamilypractice.comresourceguide.
- Weight Control: Obesity during pregnancy increases the incidences of neural tube defects, diabetes, premature labor, cesarean section, preeclampsia etc. Additionally, in my experience, women who have difficulty conceiving and chose to address this problem by first improving their health and getting their weight under control via a healthy diet emphasizing good quality protein, additional zinc and B vitamins, exercise, increased water consumption, additional fiber, essential fatty acids frequently resolve their infertility issues.
- Detox: If a woman’s toxic load is high as a result of her taking prescriptive, or non prescriptive medications, having multiple amalgam fillings, or working or living in a chemically-laden environment, she might consider a detoxification or gentle colon and liver cleansing program prior to conception. If a detox program alone does not relieve fatigue, migraines, PMS and or other symptoms associated with being toxic, consulting a physician familiar with nutritional and or chelation protocols for a more advanced detoxification process would be wise. For a list of physcians ( MD, ND or DO) in your area familiar with these approaches, go to the American Academy of Advancement in Medicine ACAM: www.ACAMnet.org, ABIHM: American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine www.holisticboard.org or the Institute for Functional Medicine: www.functionalmedicine.org.
- Gut Health: If a woman has had a history of yeast infections and or frequent antibiotic use for chronic infections or teenage acne, she may consider consulting a physician who is well versed in the detection and treatment of yeast (Candida). A yeast-free diet along with herbs and other treatments will help ensure a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in mom which has been shown to positively impact a newborn’s immune system (8). An informative book on the subject is The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates or go to www.BodyEoology.com.
- Dental Amalgams: If a woman has mercury based amalgam dental fillings, it may be prudent to consult a dentist familiar with safe procedures for their removal prior to conceiving. To locate an informed dentist associated with The American Holistic Dental Association check www.holisticdental.org (9)
- Supplements: Also in anticipation of conception, it makes sense to begin taking a natural and comprehensive pre-natal multi-vitamin mineral supplement. A good, easily absorbed prenatal supplement is Opti-Natal. Any pre-natal should have at least 800mcg of Folic acid which has been shown to decrease the incidence of Neural Tube Defect by up to 70% Adding a mercury free source of essential fatty acids (Omega 3’s) is also important for fetal brain development.
- Test Vitamin D levels via blood work and add additional Vitamin D3 if level is low. Many studies are supporting the use of higher levels than previously thought necessary. For more information go to www.VitaminDcouncil.org.
- Watch the Fish: Minimize consumption of large fish. For mercury levels of fish check: www.gotmercury.org. Most fish have 0.2-0.3 mcg of mercury gm. Sharks, swordfish and tilefish have 1.0mcg/gm.
- Vaccines: Do your research on this extremely important and very controversial topic. Discuss with your naturally- oriented health care provider the idea of avoiding the flu shot and any other vaccine for one year prior to conception and while pregnant. To learn more about infant vaccines: Visit the National Vaccine Information Center at: www.NVIC.org. Be informed and if you decide to vaccinate see the article: Safer Ways to Vaccinate at the Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet website http://www.sokhop.com/are-there-safer-ways-to-vaccinate-our-children-published-in-feb-issue-of-wnc-woman-magazine-29.
- Water: Get a good home water filter system and drink from a stainless steel water bottle instead of buying water in plastic. Heated or not, soft plastic bottles release phthalates. See resource guide for info on best filtration systems below
- Indoor Air: The CDC reports that indoor air pollution is quickly becoming a top health hazard (10). Open your windows to create some ventilation. Sleep in a darkened room with no TV or computers. Computers and TVs emit Electro Magnetic Radiation (EMF’s) Use cell phones only when necessary and keep the phone in your pocketbook instead of your pocket. (11)
- Green Dry Cleaners: In addition to using greener laundry, household cleaning and personal care products, find a “green” dry cleaners. Perchloroethylene used in dry cleaning may cause tremors, numbness, and with higher levels coma and death due to respiratory paralysis. Consumer Reports study concluded 1/6700 will get cancer from wearing PERC cleaned clothing once per week. (12)
For a more comprehensive list of guidelines that in addition to tips on what to do prior to conception, also addresses health choices during pregnancy and in the newborn period that can impact the health and behavior of your child, see published article 52 Ways to Prevent Autism.
Since we live in a time when corporate profits are more of a concern to our legislators than the health of the population, we cannot count on government health agencies to protect us or our unborn children. It will most likely be a long time (if ever) before we hear from any public official warning us about the dangers of environmental toxicity, vaccines or giving us advice for parents to be to get their health in order before conception. The problem is our kids can’t wait for the CDC or FDA to issue edicts about our health! Currently 1 in 50 of our kids are developing autism, asthma has tripled in the last 2 decades, 11 million children have been diagnosed with ADD and 1 in 7 of our school-aged children receive psychiatric medication. Now is the time for us (most especially men and women of childbearing age,) to get our own health in order, continue to empower ourselves with information regarding the hazards inherent in chemicals, minimize our exposure to them, and – of utmost importance – boost our nutritional status so we can decrease the damage caused by the toxins we can’t avoid. By being proactive and applying these common sense strategies prior to conceiving, we have a fighting chance of giving birth to children who are not affected by physical, behavioral, neurological problems but instead are free to lead healthy lives unencumbered by illness and disabilities.
The author: Maureen McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented pediatric registered nurse for 36 years. She is the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences and is the co-founder of children’s green health expos and website: Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet. Her published articles including What Can Be Done to Prevent Autism Now!, and Safer Ways to Vaccinate can be found at www.SOKHOP.com. Maureen is the medical coordinator of the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer in New Mexico. Additionally she lectures widely on the role nutrition and environmental toxins play in women and children’s health. She is the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine, has 7 beautiful grandchildren and feels blessed to be living in the amazing mountains of western North Carolina.
2. MacDorman, et al, Recent Trends in Infant Mortality in the US www.cdc.gov/nchsi/databrief/db09.htm
3. Landrigan, P.J., Schecter, C.B., Lipton, J.M., Fahs, M.C., Schwartz, J. Environmental pollutants and disease in American children: Estimates of morbidity, mortality and costs for lead poisoning, asthma, cancer and developmental disabilities. Environ Health Perspect. 2002; 110 (7):721-728.
4. Exposure of the US Population to Bisphenol A and 4-terriary-octyphenol: 2003-2004, Environmental Health Perspectives; Volume 116; Number 11, January 11, 2008 WWW.EWG.ORG/reports/bisphenola/execsumm.php
5. Maternal residence Near Agricultural Pesticide Applications and Autism spectrum Disorders Among Children in the California Central Valley. Environmental Health Perspectives; July 30, 2007Molecular Psychiatry, November 10, 2005
6. Effects of environmental exposures on human development and reproduction. Proceedings of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment meeting, University of California, San Francisco, January, 2007.
7. Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives; February 2006.and Organic Foods vs Supermarket Foods: Element Levels; J of Appl. Nutrition, 45 , 1993 35
8. Perez, PF et al, Bacterial imprinting of the neonatal immune system lessons from maternal cells. Pediatrics, March 2007:119(3)e724-32
9. FDA Presentation: An Evaluation of Dental Amalgam Mercury Release and Corresponding toxicology Concerns, Boyd Haley, Ph.D. September 7, 2006
10. Associations between indoor environmental factors and parental-reported autistic spectrum disorders in children 6-8 years of age. NeuroToxicology. Available online 2/10/09
11 Resources regarding the biological effects of EMF’s August 2007 (available on www.bioinitiative.org), and the 2009 special EMF issue of the Journal of Pathophysiology.Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution, Camilla Rees, Magda Havas, PhD
12. Consumer Reports study in 1996 concluded 1/6700 will get cancer from wearing PERC cleaned clothing once per week. Dry Cleaning Alternatives online; http://consumerreports.org accessed March 16, 2007