When you decide you’re ready to grow your family, there’s a lot to consider: timing, career decisions, finances and the life-changing transition to parenthood. Optimizing your health before trying to conceive is perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare for pregnancy. The last thing you want is to look back and think you “should” have done something more to prepare.
As a reproductive endocrinologist at Illume Fertility for over 20 years, I have seen just how important preconception health can be to fertility success. Whether you end up conceiving on your own or with the help of a fertility specialist, taking these five steps pre-pregnancy will have a positive impact on your health before pregnancy and in the long-term—and the health of your future baby.
Here are 5 ways to optimize your preconception health:
1. Start taking a prenatal vitamin
It’s important to find a prenatal vitamin with all the nutrients your body needs to sustain a healthy pregnancy. Essential nutrients you’ll need are B vitamins, calcium and iron.
Additionally, folate is especially important at the beginning of pregnancy to support rapid cell growth and help prevent neural tube defects. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend taking a prenatal with at least 400 mcg of folic acid.
I advise that when you go for your annual well-woman exam, you ask your doctor for a recommended prenatal to avoid the dizzying choices of the vitamin aisle. (Spy our faves here!)
2. Review current medications with your doctor
If you’re currently taking medications, supplements or substances of any kind, be upfront with your doctor and review the potential risks or benefits of continuing each one as you begin trying to conceive.
Sometimes, current medications may need to be swapped out or tapered off if they aren’t safe for pregnancy. Always discuss any concerns with your doctor and never stop taking medications without medical supervision.
You also need to consider alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and other over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements as you embark on your path to pregnancy, as they can reduce your likelihood of a healthy pregnancy and child.
3. Incorporate stress management and meditation
Adding holistic practices like acupuncture, exercise, meditation or yoga can lower stress levels by decreasing your heart rate and slowing your breathing, allowing you to relax and destress as you move through the trying to conceive process.
Studies suggest that lowering your cortisol (stress hormone) levels can even increase positive fertility outcomes.
4. Establish a whole-foods diet
Eating whole, nutrient-dense foods is one of the first steps you can take to create the foundation for a healthy pregnancy. If you have questions or concerns, consulting with a nutritionist (particularly one who specializes in fertility) can be a great place to start or get support with dietary and lifestyle changes.
A whole-foods diet typically includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and heart-healthy fats, with minimal intake of refined or processed foods. It is important to establish these healthy habits prior to pregnancy so you already have a routine in place when you get that positive pregnancy test, instead of wondering “How do I need to eat differently now?”
5. Quit smoking
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a very important one. Smoking and second-hand smoke can have a huge negative impact on fertility and a healthy pregnancy.
Smoking can affect egg quality, time to menopause, increase the risk of miscarriage and impact the health of a future pregnancy.
If you or anyone around you smokes, consider taking steps to quit or avoid that second-hand smoke exposure. While there is no data yet regarding the safety of vaping, it should be avoided as well. Additionally, smoking marijuana (or the inhalation of any superheated gas) may affect egg quality.
The bottom line
Prioritizing your health before trying to conceive is an essential part of preparing for pregnancy, and making even small changes to your diet and lifestyle can have a big impact. Always aim for improvement, not perfection. By taking these steps to focus on your health before pregnancy, you’ll not only increase your chances of success but also create healthy habits for the future.
American Society for Reproductive Medicine, & American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Gynecologic Practice. (2019). Prepregnancy counseling: Committee opinion no. 762. Fertility and Sterility, 111(1), 32–42. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2018.12.003
Massey AJ, Campbell BK, Raine-Fenning N, Pincott-Allen C, Perry J, Vedhara K. Relationship between hair and salivary cortisol and pregnancy in women undergoing IVF. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016;74:397-405. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.08.027
Rooney KL, Domar AD. The relationship between stress and infertility. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2018;20(1):41-47. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2018.20.1/klrooney
Santa-Cruz, Diana C.a,b; Agudo, Davida,b Impact of underlying stress in infertility, Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology: June 2020 – Volume 32 – Issue 3 – p 233-236 doi: 10.1097/GCO.0000000000000628
Vitale SG, La Rosa VL, Petrosino B, Rodolico A, Mineo L, Laganà AS. The Impact of Lifestyle, Diet, and Psychological Stress on Female Fertility. Oman Med J. 2017;32(5):443-444. doi:10.5001/omj.2017.85
About the author
Mark Leondires, MD is a reproductive endocrinologist and OB/GYN who founded fertility practice Illume Fertility and Gay Parents To Be, the leading international fertility program serving the LGBTQIA+ community. Dr. Leondires attended medical school at the University of Vermont, completed his residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Maine Medical Center, and completed his fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Leondires believes that every patient deserves inclusive, expert fertility care. As a father via surrogacy himself, he combines his personal and professional experience to provide high-quality, compassionate care to all. You can learn more about Dr. Leondires and his work by visiting illumefertility.com and gayparentstobe.com or following @illumefertility and @gayparentstobe.
A version of this story was published on July 22, 2022. It has been updated.