Common Sense Health: Getting Healthy BEFORE Getting Pregnant
By Maureen McDonnell, RN
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 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.
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, seven out of every 1000 US newborns die, (which gives us a ranking in the world of 34th 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 provides 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!
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 at www.sokhop.com.
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 one in seven 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.
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.