Did you know that 78% of autoimmune patients are women, most of which are of childbearing age? As women this presents us with a unique set of issues relating to health, fertility, and pregnancy.
Autoimmune disease and fertility is a topic that has fascinated me since the moment I was diagnosed with my autoimmune disease, because on a personal level I have always wanted children, and on a professional level I regularly work with women who are pregnant or trying to conceive. Over the years, I have done a lot of my own research and talked with multiple doctors about some of the best ways to improve health specifically as it relates to fertility and pregnancy and while I am not a doctor or a medical professional, today I would like to share some of the helpful things I have taken away from my research.
Tips For Improving Health and Fertility Before Trying to Conceive:
- Get off of Hormonal Birth Control: I have written on the topic of hormonal birth control as it relates to autoimmunity in the past, but suffice it to say that sex hormones can play a big role in immune system regulation, gut flora, and the management of autoimmune disease. Hormonal birth control can throw all of those things out of balance. Hormonal birth control has also been shown to lead to serious nutrient deficiencies that can impact fertility. So, even if you are not quite ready to start trying for a baby, ditch the hormonal birth control in favor of a non-hormonal option like condoms, a diaphragm, natural family planning, or a copper IUD. Giving your body time to recover from hormonal birth control use is probably one of the best things you can do to increase your chances of conceiving. I personally, switched to a non-hormonal IUD about a year and half ago and I have had a great experience.
- Focus on Eating a Nutrient Dense Diet: If you are following the autoimmune protocol or the paleo diet, you are already doing great in this department. Cutting out processed foods, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine and adding in nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, grass fed meat, bone broth, and ferments will accomplish a number of things. First, it will decrease inflammation in the body which is a big inhibitor of fertility, second, it will increase depleted nutrient stores, third, it will aid in gut healing which is important to the health of your future babies (you should tae a probiotic supplement for this as well) and finally it will aid in the management of autoimmune disease. Cutting out dairy may also help to balance hormones, which may make it easier to get pregnant.
- Begin Taking a Prenatal Vitamin That Contains Bio-Available Folate: Most doctors recommend beginning to take a prenatal vitamin at least three months before you plan to start trying to conceive. The goal here is primarily to increase your folate levels before conception, which can help minimize the risks of neural tube defects in the developing fetus. The problem is that most vitamins contain folic acid, which is a synthetic compound that is supposed to be broken down by the liver and converted into a useable form of folate in the body. However, many people lack the appropriate amount of enzymes in the liver to accomplish this task which results in high amounts of unusable, unmetabolized folic acid in the blood stream. This is especially true for those with a diagnosed MTHFR gene mutation. It may surprise you to know that folic acid was not even invented until 1943 and it was not introduced as a mandatory food fortification technique until 1998. Large amounts of unmetabolized folic acid do little to help your developing baby and have even been speculated to cause larger potential health problems down the line. As a result, it is best to increase folate levels naturally. The best way to do this is through a diet high in leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, and liver. However, if you are planning on taking a prenatal vitamin I would recommend using this one as it contains bioavailable folate rather than folic acid and I can say from personal experience that it is easy on even the most sensitive stomachs.
- Optimize your Vitamin D and Omega 3 levels: Aside from folate there are a few other nutrients that are specifically important when it comes to fertility and pregnancy: Vitamin D, Vitamin A, and Omega 3s. Optimizing vitamin D levels is important for anyone looking to manage autoimmune disease in general, as vitamin D can act as an immune regulator and is an important nutrient. I would definitely recommend getting your levels tested by your doctor. Getting adequate sunlight, eating grass fed, organic, meat and supplementing with both vitamin D and Vitamin K2 should help increase your levels. Omega 3 fatty acids are also very important when it comes to over-all health and decreasing inflammation, they also play a big role in baby brain development. There is a ton of information out there on how to get enough omega 3s. Food wise, seafood, pastured egg yolks, and grass fed liver are your best options. If you are also interested in supplementing, you will hear a ton of conflicting information about a variety of fish oils to use. In my research I found some uncertainty about the source quality of many plain fish oil capsules, there has also been a lot of controversy surrounding cod liver oil lately (which used to be one of the top recommended way to supplemented with omega 3s) and I just didn’t feel comfortable with it, so in the end I chose to supplement with high quality krill oil. It is affordable, has high levels of omega 3s and is easy to digest.
- Begin a Regular Moderate Intensity Exercise Routine With a Focus on Back, Core and Pelvic Floor Muscles: We all know that regular exercise is good for you. We also all know that getting into the routine of exercising is half the battle. This is especially true when you’re thinking about getting pregnant. Exercise in pregnancy is super important, but chances are you are not going to have tons of motivation to start a new routine if you’re battling first trimester fatigue or indigestion. So, get yourself into the routine now! Keep your exercise at a moderate intensity, as too much high intensity work can possibly affect fertility in some people. You will also benefit from including some serious core and back work in your routine because these are the muscles you will rely on the most to maintain healthy posture and minimize pain throughout pregnancy. Having strong core muscles can also help you recover faster postpartum. Yoga is a great option as is pilates or lower to moderate intensity weight lifting. Personally, I really like these online videos because they are short, fun and there are a ton of them.
- Work on a Gentle Detox Routine: An overload of toxins in your system can impact your health on a number of levels, but definitely on your hormones. Gently working to detox your body may help reduce your overall toxic load and improve health and fertility. The easiest way to do this is to drink plenty of water. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day helps flush out your system, it is also a good habit to get into because when you get pregnant you have to drink water like it is your job in order to stay hydrated and reduce your risk of preterm labor. Another easy way to gently detox your system is to include detox baths into your bedtime routine a few days a week. I regularly take Epsom salt baths to help reduce my inflammation and prevent pain, but a simple bath with some Epsom salts or some baking soda can help to gently detox your body and improve overall health.
If you’re looking for more information on autoimmunity and infertility, recovering from hormonal birth control use or getting pregnant here are some resources I recommend: