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Get Healthy BEFORE You Get Pregnant…  by Maureen McDonnell, RN  

“You’re not a real nurse” a teen recently remarked. “You don’t work in a hospital.” Although he meant no harm or insult, the naive comment caused me to reflect on the fact that my career in nursing has been rather nontraditional. Although I did work in hospitals for several years, it became apparent to me early on that there was more I could do to help people understand that by getting out ahead of a health problem (with diet and lifestyle changes) they could often prevent the suffering, pain and stress that accompanies most illnesses. Teaching childbirth classes, organizing natural health conferences and becoming a health writer all strengthened my commitment toward prevention and ultimately led to my passion for helping women recognize the importance of getting healthy before getting pregnant!

We all know there are many factors at play in the days and weeks following conception that are crucial for the survival and healthy development of a fetus such as diet, stress, infection, tobacco use, environmental toxins, alcohol, drugs etc. But what we don’t often consider (& yet it may be of equal, if not greater significance) is the health status of the parents (especially the mother) prior to becoming pregnant and at the time of conception.

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, a record high number of children with autism (new survey from NHIS reporting 1 in 38) and 54% of our kids suffering with one or more chronic illness ranging from Asthma, ADHD, Anxiety, Allergies, Cancer etc., it is high time we examine this concept more closely.

Although not every childhood illness or disability can be prevented and by no means am I pointing the finger of blame (if a child does get sick) at parents. What I am saying is that in my role as a pediatric RN and specifically as a children’s health conference coordinator, I listened to countless parents of children with autism and other health and behavioral problems tell me “if I only knew then, what I know now, I would have done things differently.” It is the echoing of this statement in my mind, as well as the glaring evidence that nutrition and environmental toxicity both play key roles in the staggering number of children suffering with chronic illness that compels me to emphasize the extraordinarily important role of prevention. Having both parents in an optimal state of health prior to conceiving is a great place to start and can not only improve their chances of conceiving, carrying and raising a healthy child, but it can save them the heartache and stress that parents of sick or disabled children know only too well
In addition to the specifics I list below, in a nutshell here is what I suggest: If at all possible, a good six months to a year prior to conceiving, consult an Integrative Nutritionist, ND, DC or MD who is well- versed in the role diet and toxins are playing in today’s current health problems. If they are as good at what they do as I hope they are, they will take their time obtaining a comprehensive health history of past and present issues, and have the ability to order not only routine lab work but also tests to measure nutrient levels, heavy metals, toxic load & check for genetic mutations that could influence fertility and the future health of your baby. Working with a practitioner who is familiar with an anti-inflammatory diet as well as natural approaches for addressing yeast overgrowth, food sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies, detoxification, genetic mutations and leaky gut syndrome are just a few of the important areas they might pursue. If there is a history of migraines, fatigue, depression, candida, PMS, acne, constipation etc. (all indicative of underlying health issues), they will address the root causes with the ultimate goal of optimizing health prior to conceiving in order to tip the scales in favor of fertility, a healthy pregnancy, labor, birth and ultimately, the healthiest baby possible!
Here are a few specifics ways to get healthy prior to getting pregnant:
• Diet and Lifestyle: Reducing or eliminating toxic and inflammatory substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine & shifting from a diet based on white, sugar-laden nutrient- deficient foods to one that contains organic, natural foods including: an array of colorful vegetables, lean sources of protein, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats will not only improve one’s fertility, but these positive changes can decrease chances of miscarriage & help avoid other complications associated with pregnancy, labor and birth.
o Why Organic? A report from the CDC found the average American had 116 of the 148 synthetic compounds tested for including the infamous dioxin, polycyclic hydrocarbons & 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. Without addressing a women’s toxic load prior to conceiving, babies are being born pre-polluted. Studies have also shown that children who live closer to agricultural fields sprayed with pesticides have an increased incidence of autism (1)
o Avoid genetically modified foods: GMO crops are sprayed with glyphosate which not only causes extreme disruption of the gut flora it also enhances the damaging effects of other environmental toxins.
o Avoid uncooked meats and minimize consumption of large mercury containing fish (check
o Include Healthy Fats- The brain is 70% fat & in order for us and our babies to have optimal brain function (stable moods, ability to focus, deep sleep, avoid major depression, anxiety and dementia etc.) we need sources of healthy fats. Sources are: Omega 3 Fatty acids (mercury free fish oil), organic, cold pressed olive oil, avocadoes, organic walnuts and seeds etc.
o Healthy Weight: Obesity during pregnancy increases the incidences of neural tube defects, diabetes, premature labor, cesarean section, preeclampsia etc. Additionally, I have observed in my practice by helping women achieve a healthy weight (via a healthy diet, specific supplements, exercise, and healthy fats) their issues with infertility often improve.

Environmental Toxins to Consider Avoiding:
o Phthalates found in soft vinyl plastic toys, shampoos, hair spray, nail polish, perfumes, new cars, pharmaceuticals and deodorants are known hormone disrupters
o BPA: found in hard plastics including baby bottles, food containers, lining of tin cans and dental sealants. One study showed BPA leached from plastic baby bottles at levels found to cause harm in laboratory animals. (4) Most cashier receipts contain BPA which gets absorbed through skin within 2-5 seconds. The absorption rate increases if you have lotion on your hands.
o Dental Fillings: Amalgam fillings contain 50% mercury. Prior to conceiving you may want consult a dentist familiar with safe procedures for their removal. (3)
o Vaccines: Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to protect themselves and their children from infections? However, I’d be remiss in discussing sources of toxins if I didn’t mention the number & amount of toxic chemicals contained in vaccines. There are pros and cons on both sides of this argument and I would encourage you to research the topic extensively as a child’s genetic vulnerability & state of health at the time they receive vaccines need to considered. Good Resources_ &
o Green Up: Do what is reasonable to “green” your home and minimize exposure to toxins in your food, cleaning products and personal care products. The average woman in the US is exposed to over 500 chemicals per day via her makeup, lotions, hair products, etc. Use only products without phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, and hormone disrupting chemicals According to the FDA, most of what is applied to your skin can be found within your organs and cells within 26 seconds.

• Supplements:
a. Prenatal Multi: Recent studies show a specific genetic variant (MTHFR) affects 20-40% of the population and results in an inability to utilize synthetic folic acid (necessary for preventing neural tube defects, preventing blood clots, and is involved in the formation of Glutathione -the body’s main detoxifying compound-) Therefore it is advisable to take a prenatal with the active form of folate (MTHF or Metafolin).

b. Probiotics: assist in the absorption of nutrients, assist in the elimination of toxins (including heavy metals), synthesize B vitamins, regulate bowel movements and limit bacteria that produce cancer causing nitrates.A healthy population of beneficial bacteria in mom has been shown to positively impact a newborn’s immune system (2) Recent studies (1) confirmed that babies born via C section (32% of all births) have higher incidences of allergies, eczema and asthma…. all conditions of a dysregulated immune system stemming in part from imbalanced gut flora.
Additional Tips to Consider (but with limited space can not elaborate)
Be sure to test for Vit D blood levels & if low, check with health care provider regarding dosage. Treat STDs, consider a water filtration system and use stainless steel water bottles instead of plastic. Since the CDC considers indoor air pollution to be a top health hazard, open windows to enhance ventilation, minimize exposure to EMF by keeping electronic devices out of bedroom, don’t carry cell phone in your pocket (4). The chemical PERC used in dry cleaning has been linked to tremors, cancer, numbness etc. Use non aluminium cookware, and non- aluminum containing antiperspirants. If possible, avoid antibiotics and antidepressants (studies show increases risk of having a child with autism if taken during pregnancy).
I’m not encouraging moms and dads-to-be to become alarmists or purists, I am suggesting you know the facts regarding today’s health threats & make wise choices. As Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, a pediatric neurologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical school states: “In the last several generations, our technology has been ahead of our science. We have filled the world with new-to-nature substances and we have massively altered our food supply without measuring the health & ecological consequences. Now it’s time to wake up, take responsibility for our dangerous situation, and put wisdom back into our lives”.

Part 2 to follow- Tips for the Healthiest Pregnancy
Bio Maureen McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented RN for 40 years. She is the health editor WNC Woman Magazine, the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now! Conferences and the co-founder of Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet ( Maureen has presented at many children’s health conferences and taught continuing education courses for physicians and nurses on the role nutrition and environmental toxicity play in today’s chronic health conditions. She is co-owner of a specialized vitamin company –, lives near Asheville, NC with her singer songwriter- CPA husband and is awaiting the birth of their 11th grandchild.

1. 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
2. Perez, PF et al, Bacterial imprinting of the neonatal immune system lessons from maternal cells. Pediatrics, March 2007:119(3)e724-32
3. FDA Presentation: An Evaluation of Dental Amalgam Mercury Release and Corresponding toxicology Concerns, Boyd Haley, Ph.D. September 7, 2006
4. Resources regarding the biological effects of EMF’s August 2007 (available on, 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


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