An outline of preconception and prenatal care, with an emphasis on nutrition and environmental medicine by environmental physician, Dr. Harold Buttram.
When looking for advice on the importance of parental health before conception, we can turn to an organization formed in England in 1979. At the time, a small group was concerned about the rising number of infant birth defects, premature births, and death rates in their country. This group founded Foresight, the Association for the Promotion of Preconception Care. It has since provided vital recommendations for prospective parents.
Foresight professionals believe the risks to fetal development arise from three main causes, and they advise special attention to each area below:
- Parental infection prior to pregnancy;
- Unsuspected malnutrition, due to nutritional deficiencies of modern processed foods or impaired absorption; and
- Personal health vices (smoking, alcohol, etc) and/or environmental toxic chemical pollution.
In addition, for women on oral contraceptives, Foresight advises changing to an alternate form of birth control for several months prior to a planned conception to allow for normalization and rebalancing of maternal hormones.
Foresight’s program is based on the premise that most unfavorable outcomes of pregnancy can be avoided if both parents make proper preparation prior to conception, ideally beginning at least six months prior to a planned conception. Considering that most parents going to Foresight clinics had histories of infertility and/or problem pregnancies, and therefore were inherently at high risk for further pregnancy complications, the results have been outstandingly favorable. For those who completed all or most of the program prior to conception, complications have been rare, with most babies born full term and healthy.
It is more than coincidental that the formation of Foresight took place at a time when the fields of environmental medicine and of natural foods and farming were well along, making their presences felt on the international scene. In Foresight’s beginnings, leading pioneer figures in these fields were often consulted, who generously offered their help and guidance to the fledgling Foresight organization. It is this background, in our opinion, which makes Foresight unique in the field of preconception care.
Under present conditions it is no longer sufficient to commence care of a pregnancy in its second or third month. By that time, in many instances, it is too late to bring about optimal conditions for nurturing a growing fetus and assuring birth of a healthy infant. In order to accomplish this highly desirable goal with reasonable prospects of success, the principles outlined below in the fields of nutrition and environmental medicine need to be transplanted to the preconception and prenatal periods, where timing makes all the difference.
Environmental Medicine, Coming of Age in Modern Times
It is critical that the developing fetus be protected from the onslaught of environmental chemicals we are faced with today. Future parents should also be aware of the dangers of toxic exposures.
The origin of environmental medicine as we know it today is usually attributed to Theron Randolph who, in the 1940s, recognized and described extreme food and chemical sensitivities in a patient. An organization grew out of his work which comes down to us today as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM). Much of the work of AAEM surrounds the diagnosis and treatment of patients made ill by exposures to commercial chemicals and their metabolites. Prominent among these is a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including pesticides, herbicides, solvent-type cleaning solutions, most paints and varnishes, formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, and a host of other commercial products. Illnesses brought about by VOC exposures can be insidious. They are largely absorbed into the system through the lungs but also readily penetrate the skin. Being fat soluble, the brain and nervous system are among their prime targets.
A second major class of chemicals involves the toxic heavy metals, prominent among which are mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and aluminum.
From its earliest days, one of the basic principles of AAEM has been that avoidance of toxic chemical exposures constitutes 70 to 80% of the treatment of an environmentally ill patient. Without avoidance, no treatment can be of lasting help and may even be harmful.
Many times the health of the parents and the unborn child can be linked to toxic exposures in the environment, even when exposures are at relatively low levels. An awareness of this topic and serious preventive efforts can bring rich rewards.
A Return to Whole-food, Ethnic Diets
It may seem obvious that diet is a critical aspect of infant health, but it is often overlooked or misunderstood. In his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Dr. Weston Price described the effect of diet on offspring of all species. He studied experimental work being done with domestic and farm animals and cited examples of anomalies caused by depletion of just a single nutrient — vitamin or mineral — in either parent.
Dr. Price stressed the role of diet in the preservation of mental acuity. In these days when one child in six needs remedial teaching and our educational system is stressed to the limit, the relevance of preconception/prenatal nutrition to normal mental development cannot be overemphasized. Optimal nutrition is also linked to the promotion of easy childbirth and abundant lactation. This too has been confirmed by mothers in the Foresight program.
In human reproduction, the father’s role in the promotion of fetal integrity has long been overlooked, although the importance of the health of the male is well recognized in farming, stock breeding, and the breeding of pets!
Prenatal Influences and Fetal Enrichment
Effects of the mother’s thoughts and emotions during pregnancy on the baby-to-be: The first authentic work on this subject was published in 1902 by R. Swinburne, MD: Prenatal Culture. The book did not offer scientific evidence, but it did present the concept in clear language and provided much philosophic support for its acceptance. The text was republished in 1950 and is a classic work on this intriguing subject. Another major work on prenatal influences was published in 1981 by Canadian psychiatrist, Thomas Verny, MD, a psychiatrist in Toronto, Ontario, in the book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, in 1981.
This book is the first study of prenatal influences with a review of published world literature on the subject up to that time. One of the more striking stories is that of the Canadian Symphony Orchestra conductor, Boris Brott. On a radio program the interviewer asked how Brott became interested in music. After hesitating a moment, Brott replied, “This may sound strange, but music has been a part of me since before birth.” When asked to explain, Brott replied that “as a young man, I was mystified by this unusual ability I had — to play certain pieces sight unseen. I’d be conducting a score for the first time and, suddenly, the cello line would jump out at me; I’d know the flow of the piece even before I turned the page of the score. One day I mentioned this to my mother, who is a professional cellist. When she heard what the pieces were, the mystery quickly solved itself. All the scores I knew sight unseen were ones she has played while she was pregnancy with me.” Dr. Verny also addressed the question of stress during pregnancy and its potential effect on the fetus.
Among the studies reviewed by Verny was one conducted by a neuroanatomist at the University of California at Berkely, who placed pregnant rats in an “enriched” environment of mazes and toys. Parenthetically, for rats, mazes and toys involve learning, much as schooling does for children. Subsequently it was found that offsprings of the enriched animals were found to have larger brains than the progeny of control parents who were raised in plain cages. The offsprings of the enriched animals also had larger levels of and increases in glial (connecting) cells. Furthermore, each succeeding generation had larger brain cortices. As Verny expressed it, “The enriched get richer.”
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