Planning for pregnancy or preconception care, is vital to boosting your chances of conceiving and for the healthy development of your baby. Preconception care needs to start at least 3 months prior to conception to allow for the development of sperm and eggs, to ensure your hormones are operating the way they should be and to allow you time to implement any diet and lifestyle changes to optimise your health.
It can feel overwhelming thinking about all the things you “should” be doing prior to falling pregnant, so to start you on your preconception care path, here are 5 nutrients you need to provide your body with the essential nutrients it needs for healthy reproduction.
5 key nutrients for preconception care
1. Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fats which support healthy reproduction in both men and women. For men, omega 3 fatty acids keep the sperm fluid and flexible, vital when travelling to or waiting for an egg. (Sperm can hang around in the female reproductive system for 3 – 5 days, so they need to have the vitality to keep on waiting!) For women, these fats are often needed where there are reproductive issues identified and are important for regulating immune cells and for the healthy development of an egg.
Great sources of omega 3 fats are:
- Oily fish (such as salmon, sardines and trout)
- Walnuts and flaxseeds (also known as linseeds)
- Chia seeds
- Eggs (look for organic or free range)
Zinc, an essential trace mineral found in all human living cells, is a vital mineral required for healthy reproduction.
Zinc is often discussed in male fertility due to its role in sperm health including but not limited to:
- the development of sperm (therefore adequate intake is required well before conception)
- healthy morphology (sperm shape)
- motility of sperm (the way sperm moves)
- maintenance of adequate testosterone levels.
Zinc is also essential for female fertility, similarly for its role in the development of the egg and for maintaining healthy hormone levels. Zinc is extremely important during pregnancy and increasing your zinc levels prior to falling pregnant will give you a good head start.
Great food sources of zinc are:
- Good quality lean red meat such as beef and lamb
- Shellfish, particularly oysters
- Nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds
- Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans
Like zinc, iodine is an essential trace mineral which is required during the preconception phase for both men and women. Iodine plays a vital role in the function of the thyroid gland and production of thyroid hormones, which may either support or impact your chances of conceiving and having a healthy pregnancy.
In men, iodine deficiency may result in poor sperm quality and in women can affect the development of healthy eggs. Iodine is also essential during pregnancy for the healthy development of your baby, particularly during the early weeks and therefore having adequate stores prior to conception is particularly important. In addition, the levels of iodine required on a daily basis is sometimes difficult to obtain solely from food and therefore supplementation is often required during the preconception phase (and into pregnancy).
Great sources of iodine include:
- Saltwater fish
- Sea salt
In Australia some manufacturers use Iodised salt which is added to bread to address low levels of Iodine intake within the population. Therefore, you can obtain Iodine through the intake of Iodised salt in bread or on its own, however where possible it is more beneficial to get this mineral from the food sources above as well as from a good quality supplement.
4. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is well known as an antioxidant and therefore helps to reduce damage to the sperm and, like zinc, can also improve sperm motility. Vitamin C maintains the ovaries, therefore is needed for egg development and the release of the egg from the ovary ready for fertilisation – essential for making babies!
Including vitamin C in your diet also helps to improve your overall health, particularly your ability to fight off infections, and having an effective immune system is important to support a healthy pregnancy.
Great sources of vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits such as oranges and mandarins
- Berries including blackcurrants and strawberries
- Broccoli and sprouts
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Red capsicums
Many women are probably aware of the requirements of folate in pregnancy as it is often advertised on TV as an essential supplement to be taken during the preconception phase. Folate is probably most well known for its role in preventing neural tube defects and spina bifida in the developing foetus, but it is also important for egg quality. Given the neural tube closes within 4 weeks after conception, folate intake during the preconception period is vital. Whilst supplementation is often required, food sources are of course the best way to boost your nutrient intake (along with supplements in this case). Folate isn’t just for the women either; once again this nutrient can improve sperm quality.
Great sources of Folate are:
- Spinach, kale and bok choy, basically all green leafy vegetables
- Lentils, chickpeas and beans
Like iodine, some foods in Australia have been fortified with folic acid to address low intake within the population, and can be found in wheat flour, so again in bread. It is more beneficial for the body to obtain natural folate from the food sources available and with supplementation during the preconception care phase.