Many pregnancy failures can be avoided through simple but important lifestyle changes during the periconceptional period. What are these changes? Let’s explore them.
What is the periconceptional period?
Researchers define this as the span of time lasting a total of 5-6 months. It starts 3-4 months PRIOR to ovulation, when egg cells begin to undergo their final maturation processes. It then lasts until 2 months after conception, or around week 10 of gestation.
As a woman’s age increases, our egg quality tends to decrease, but we all have the power to change that.
Egg quality is hugely impacted by lifestyle changes in the 3-4 months prior to ovulation. Meaning, what you do in those 3-4 months is really important.
Many couples assume that there’s no need to make lifestyle changes so early. From my experience in my wholistic clinic, I find that making these changes 3-4 months early is the bare minimum. Creating a healthy preconception lifestyle 6 months before actively trying to start a family is very ideal.
We’ve covered how these changes have a healthy impact on fertility. However these changes can also have a positive effect on the health of your future children. One of the ways we know this is the classic study done by Dr. Randy Jirtle.
What is Dr. Jirtle’s classic study?
Dr. Jirtle is particularly fascinated in the fetal origins of disease susceptibility. In his classic study, he started with pairs of fat yellow mice, known to scientists as agouti mice. These mice carry a gene that makes these mice fat, have yellow fur, and prone to getting cancer and diabetes.
Typically when these agouti mice reproduce, the offspring are identical to the parents. However, in his study, Jirtle changed the maternal diets and this had a surprising result.
In the image below, the mother of the obese yellow mouse on the left was fed the typical mouse diet before and during pregnancy.
Whereas the mother of the brown and lean mouse on the right was fed a diet that promoted methylation before and during pregnancy. Interestingly, this brown mouse had decreased risk of getting cancer and diabetes, and had much longer lifespan compared to the typical Agouti mouse.
What is astounding is that both the mice pictured above are genetically identical! But their health outcome is quite different simply due to changes to their mothers diet during the periconceptional period. It is important to remember that this period started before these mice were conceived.
What is methylation?
We learnt that a maternal diet that promotes methylation can have a profound positive impact on her baby’s health, but what is methylation?
Methylation refers to a reaction where a methyl group (composed of 1 carbon and 3 hydrogens) is added.
The image above provides an example of methylation, where a methyl group (-CH3) is added to cytosine, one of the bases of nucleic acids involved in our DNA.
Why is methylation important?
A little known fact: not all of our genes are active all the time. Methylation of our DNA is one way to turn off the expression of genes.
Researchers have also found DNA methylation to be essential for cell differentiation, a process in which a cell changes from one cell type to usually a more specialized cell type. This is critically important in the normal development of an embryo, the stage of human life not too long after the sperm has fused with the egg.
Scientists have noted a connection between DNA methylation abnormalities in various birth defects. The defects include neural tube defects such as spina bifida and congenital heart disease.
It’s important to note that research also suggests decreased levels of methylation is associated with recurrent pregnancy loss.
What food promotes methylation?
Now it’s time to take notes, what foods can improve your fertility and baby’s health?
It turns out that folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are all vital cofactors in the process of methylation. So, a diet that promotes methylation is one that is either high in these vitamins, or high in other compounds that can act as a methyl donor, such as betaine and choline. And here are 5 food groups that fit the bill:
- Dark leafy greens: examples include kale, spinach, and collard greens. These leafy greens are great sources of folate and B vitamins.
- Cruciferous vegetables: besides being great for detoxification, cruciferous veggies such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and bok choy can help with methylation due to their sulforaphane and folate content.
- Beets: Beets are a good source of betaine, a methyl donor. Both the beet root and the beet leaves can be used. There are studies showing that embryos supplemented with betaine have less birth defects including congenital heart defects.
- Seeds: Seeds are nutritional powerhouses because they contain all the nutrients that promote growth of a plant. Sesame seeds are great sources of choline and folate. Sunflower seeds are particularly high in vitamin B6, folate, choline and betaine.
- Liver Organ Meat: Liver organ meat has high amounts of folate, choline, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. Since pesticides can interfere with methylation, it is best to get organic sources like organic grass fed beef liver or organic free-range chicken liver. However, because of the vitamin A content in organ meats, pregnant women should eat this in moderation not exceeding the recommended upper intake level of 10,000IU of vitamin A per day. While most people in the West may be turned off by the idea of eating liver organ meat, this meat is commonly consumed throughout Asia.
You can make a difference!
Remember, you have the power to boost your fertility and the health of your future children! And you can do this by choosing to eat food that can improve fertility, starting at least 3-4 months prior to conception.
If you would like to get more actionable tips to boost your odds of successful pregnancy, check out my Top 7 Tips on Getting Pregnant Naturally here!
- Steegers-Theunissen RP et al. The periconceptional period, reproduction and long-term health of offspring: the importance of one-carbon metabolism. Human Reprod Update. 2013.
- The role of Methylation in Gene Expression: https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/the-role-of-methylation-in-gene-expression-1070/
- Serra-Juhe C et al. DNA methylation abnormalities in congenital heart disease. Epigenetics. 2015.
- Du G et al. Hypomethylation of PRDM1 is associated with recurrent pregnancy loss. J Cell Mol Med. 2020.
- Joubert BR et al. Maternal plasma folate impacts differential DNA methylation in an epigenome-wide meta-analysis of newborns. Nature Communications. 2016.
- Nutrition Source of Folate: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/folic-acid/
- Kaufman-Szymczyk A et al. Role of Sulforaphane in Epigenetic Mechanisms, Including Interdependence between Histone Modification and DNA Methylation. Int J Mol Sci. 2015.
- Karunamuni G et al. Supplementation with the Methyl Donor Betaine Prevents Congenital Defects Induced by Prenatal Alcohol Exposure. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2017.