Nutrition and wellness have always played a large part in fertility. Both things involve a shared focus on the foods we consume, the chemicals we limit or avoid, and the activities that affect our bodies – including sleep, stress, and exercise. Sounds pretty basic, right?
During normal circumstances, improving diet and nutrition, exercising regularly, and minimizing stress can do wonders to improve your chances of getting pregnant, but there’s a bit more to it in 2021. Let’s discuss some tips for how to get your mind and body in shape if you’re hoping to make a baby in the coming year.
1. Don’t leave the pandemic out of family planning.
A lot goes into the decision of when to start your family – from age, health risks, and job security to personal, professional, and financial goals. The COVID-19 pandemic may have turned those factors on their heads and added even more to consider, like risk of exposure to mom and baby and where we are with the vaccine.
Some of these factors are out of your control, and many of them depend on your family’s current situation regarding the pandemic and its economic impact. That makes family planning in 2021 highly individualized. Talk through the decision with family members and your OB/GYN to decide on the right time to bring a little one into the world – and keep in mind your body doesn’t always work on the timeline you choose.
Related to the pandemic, here are some things to consider as you plan. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), pregnant women are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant women, although the overall increased risk is small. As of late November, the total number of COVID-19 cases among pregnant women in the United States reached 40,306, and fifty-four pregnant women with COVID-19 had died at that time (0.13%).
I recommend getting in front of any health issues and taking precautions if you’re trying to become pregnant during the pandemic. Before you start trying to conceive, work with your primary physician to get any chronic conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, or asthma under control. These underlying conditions could increase your risk for a severe illness if you were to contract COVID-19. (It’s also a good idea to do this even if you’re not trying to become pregnant this year.)
Be vigilant about COVID-19 safety precautions (masking, hand hygiene, and social distancing). Pregnancy suppresses the immune system, making pregnant women more vulnerable to infection than the general public. That means it’s even more important to limit your contact with people and take the recommended precautions if you’re trying to become pregnant.
According to the CDC, there’s no documentation of increased risk of miscarriage or fetal malformations in pregnant women who are infected with COVID-19. And while there have been some reports that COVID-19 may have passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy or delivery, this seems to be a rare phenomenon.
Practicing good infection-control habits (masking, hand hygiene, and social distancing) is even more important once the baby is born – as is ensuring that household members and any potential visitors are also diligent about practicing good habits. After birth, the risk of a mother passing COVID-19 to her newborn is low, especially when the mother takes these precautions. Current evidence suggests breastfeeding is not likely to spread the virus to babies.
Regarding vaccinations, the vaccine trials by Pfizer and Moderna did not include pregnant women, so guidance is lacking at this time. Once analyzed and distributed more widely, I expect our national organizations to release official guidelines on this.
2. Eat like you’re pregnant.
Once you’ve decided to try to conceive in 2021, the first step is eating right. If you tell almost any parent in your life – a sibling, friend at work, your dental hygienist – that you are even thinking about having a child, you will hear a wealth of suggestions about how to prepare, including what to eat. I often recommend to my patients that the best way to prepare for pregnancy is to behave as though you are already pregnant. This means eating a diet rich in omega fats and vegetables rich in vitamins, limiting or avoiding sugar, supplementing with a prenatal vitamin, and abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.
Studies support the following nutritional advice.
What to eat:
• Antioxidants: dark chocolate, pecans, berries
• Healthy omegas to support ovulation and fetal brain development: salmon, nuts, seeds, flax, chia, and grass-fed beef
• Folic acid (upwards of 400 micrograms daily): plenty of leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and nuts
• Iron (27 milligrams daily): eggs, poultry, and green vegetables
• Zinc: oysters, beef, baked beans
How to supplement:
• Whether you are eating these things or not, it’s a good idea to take a daily prenatal vitamin supplement with folic acid. That will ensure you are getting the extra amounts of vitamins and minerals needed during pregnancy – even when you have an off-day diet-wise.
What to avoid:
• Caffeine (no more than 200 milligrams daily): one or two cups of coffee a day at the most
• Tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drugs
3. Condition your body to prepare for pregnancy.
Additionally, being active is important for becoming pregnant. Get into a good exercise routine before trying to conceive to strengthen and condition your body for pregnancy.
I’m not necessarily saying to start training for a marathon tomorrow, but three days of moderate exercise weekly for thirty to forty-five minutes at a time will do wonders for your cardiovascular health (and stress levels). Examples of moderate exercise include swimming or brisk walking (a pace where you can talk, but not sing).
4. Minimize stress to improve hormone balance.
Finally, if you’re trying to conceive during a pandemic or otherwise, understand that stress management is important for fertility. Stress – whether it is physical or emotional – can wreak havoc on your hormones, mood, and overall fertility for you and your partner. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to lower libido, erectile dysfunction, and suppressed ovulation.
It’s easy to fall into a self-perpetuating cycle of stress, especially when you are having difficulty getting pregnant. For example, staying up late worrying can lead to late-night eating, which can result in poor sleep. Lack of sleep might lead to an increase in caffeine consumption the next day, making it difficult to fall asleep again.
The best way to break the stress cycle is to establish a healthy sleep pattern: avoid eating two hours before bed; aim for six to eight hours of restful sleep; and avoid stimulants such as alcohol or caffeine. This will boost your immune system and regulate hormone balance.
How can women feel best prepared to begin their pregnancy journey in 2021?
One of the universal truths of being a parent is to expect the unexpected and realize that as much as you want to control things, so many things are out of your control. That said, I can’t think of anything that could prepare you for parenthood better than a pandemic!
The key is not to focus on the outcome, but to focus on the things you can control – like your daily habits – to prepare your body for pregnancy. The best way to achieve your goal of becoming pregnant is to support your health with nutrition, exercise, and stress management. And don’t forget lots of masks, sanitizer, and a joyful heart.
You can also set up a preconception visit with your OB/GYN to evaluate your medical history, discuss any potential fertility roadblocks, and come up with a personalized plan to make sure you’re on the right track. With any luck, these tips will get you started on your journey to a fertile 2021.