Many of life’s milestones are easier to navigate with a degree of preparation, and this is particularly true of a pregnancy. As a Chinese medicine practitioner specializing in reproductive care, I am a huge advocate of taking three months to get your body ready for conception. Consider this time a “pre-mester,” where you take the same careful care of your body as you would if you were already pregnant. Do it for the same reason you do it during pregnancy (providing the best health for your baby), and you’ll get a bonus —a smoother, surer path to conception.
Why three months? Studies show that the process of maturing an oocyte into an egg ready to be released at ovulation takes at least three months. It also takes at least three months for sperm cells to develop fully. What happens in your body during this time affects your eggs or sperm. We want them to be healthy and active, and the best way to achieve this is for you to be healthy and active in the run-up to conception.
If you are preparing for an Assisted Reproductive Technique (ART) such as Invitro Fertilization (IVF) or Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), the same rules apply. Your chances of success will be increased if you spend a short amount of time getting into shape before the procedure.
A study followed over 1000 IVF patients divided into three groups: those who had acupuncture treatments alongside IVF, those with no acupuncture, and a final group who received three months of Chinese medical care before their IVF. The latter group had regular acupuncture, combined with dietary advice, lifestyle adjustments, fertility coaching, herbal medicine, and supplements. In effect, they did a three-month pre-mester with the guidance of a Chinese medicine practitioner.
The group that had acupuncture treatments around IVF and the group that spent three months using Chinese medicine before their IVF cycle had better results than the group with no acupuncture. And when the researchers compared the group with Chinese medical preconception care with the women who only received acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer, the odds of live birth were 53% higher in the former group.
That’s an impressive endorsement for a three-month pre-mester using all the tools Chinese medicine practitioners can offer. Here are a few ways you can improve your chances of conception and get in shape for a healthy pregnancy:
Eat to Conceive
Eating good quality foods is one of the most important ways to support your health and that of your baby. Steer clear of trans fats, refined sugars, and processed foods. Instead, focus on fresh, seasonal produce in its natural state, with as much organic food as your pocketbook will allow.
Make sure you supplement with a good quality prenatal vitamin and an essential fatty acid supplement. Probiotics will help to balance gut flora, which in turn support good digestion during pregnancy. CoQ10 is a helpful addition to your supplement regimen if you are older and concerned about egg quality.
Balance your Hormones
You’ll find it easier to conceive if your cycles are regular, so now is the time to invest in a period tracking app and pay attention to your body’s rhythm. Record your cycle length, whether you have fertile cervical mucus at ovulation and how long your period lasts. If you want to take your research a step further, consider tracking your Basal Body Temperature. If you find your periods are short (less than 25 days), long (more than 30 days), or irregular, a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs are extremely effective in regulating your cycle.
Being overweight or underweight can make it harder to get pregnant and lead to complications during pregnancy.
The vast majority (more than 75 percent) of women struggling with infertility caused by being overweight will conceive naturally once their weight stabilizes at a healthy point. Results are even more dramatic for underweight women: 90 percent of them can expect to conceive once they reach their ideal weight. If you are overweight, the loss of 5 or 10 percent of your body weight, ideally with the addition of some exercise, will significantly boost your chances of pregnancy, even if it doesn’t bring you all the way to your “ideal” weight. If you are underweight, putting on only a few pounds can make the difference.
Whether you need to gain or lose, now is the time to take action. If you are overweight, get some support to help you eat well and move more. If you are underweight, add some healthy fats and protein to your diet. Just a handful of nuts each day and half an avocado on your lunch salad can do the trick.
Exercise (But Not Too Much)
Moderation is the key when it comes to exercise. Intense exercise can stop ovulation and leave your body depleted, making pregnancy more difficult. On the other hand, regular activity helps the body control blood sugar levels by burning off sugar in the blood. That means insulin can work as it is meant to, without going to the kinds of extremes that can interfere with ovulatory function and conception. Exercise also helps keep androgens at appropriate levels so they will help, not hinder, fertility.
Try to get at least thirty minutes of moderate exercise almost every day—more if you are trying to lose weight—and vary the activity to achieve a balance of aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching. The endurance, muscle tone, and suppleness you develop during your pre-mester will help your body adjust to the extra demands pregnancy places on it.
We can’t live a life without any stress at all, and we are designed to cope with acute stress, at least up to a point. However, chronic stress will compromise your fertility and negatively affect a pregnancy if you don’t find ways to manage or disperse it. You need to find out what works for you and do it. Adopt daily stress management habits; try yoga, meditation, guided relaxation, or simply taking a walk after work to unwind and consider weekly acupuncture treatments to offset the effects of stress on your reproductive system.
Root out Toxins
Many of the products we use every day, from skincare to household cleaning supplies, contain hormone-disrupting chemicals. This can make getting pregnant harder, and some of these chemicals have been linked to miscarriage. Take this opportunity to clean out your cupboards and switch to natural brands where you can.
Drop Unhealthy Habits
Preparing for pregnancy gives many people the motivation they need to tackle habits they know are unhealthy. If you smoke or are concerned that you may drink too much alcohol, now is the time to get some support to quit. Both alcohol and cigarette smoke affect hormone balance and make conceiving harder, and both increase the risk of pregnancy complications, including miscarriage.
For the most part, the things that keep your body healthy also support fertility, so your pre-mester will make conception more likely, pregnancy easier, and give your baby the healthiest start possible.
Dr. Jill Blakeway is a licensed and board-certified acupuncturist and clinical herbalist and the founder of Yinova in New York City. She is the author of three books on health and healing, including Making Babies: A Three-Month Program for Maximum Fertility, which she wrote with a reproductive endocrinologist.