Baby Food (For You)!

Thoughts of pregnancy—of nurturing a growing body inside one's own—inspire many women to discover a new respect for their own bodies and health. They forego prepackaged dinners, suddenly finding both the time and the money to cook fresh, organic foods; they pass up that double mocha for a decaf green tea; they muster the memory twice each day to take their vitamins, which used to go forgotten for weeks at a time.

According to experts, these nutritional changes not only make women healthier, but actually can increase their chances of getting pregnant. Naturopathic physicians and holistic medical doctors often treat infertility with a three-pronged approach: detoxification, dietary changes, and herbal supplements.

Estrogens, everywhere

By the time most women want to start a family, they've spent a good 20 years exposed to environmental and dietary toxins. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, drugs, certain foods, and all things plastic contain substances known as xenoestrogens. These estrogen-like compounds fit into the receptor sites on cells normally reserved for naturally occurring estrogen. Once there, they either mimic the hormone's activity-thus increasing the overall level of estrogen activity-or trigger different effects in the cell, both of which can upset the delicate hormonal balance women and men need to reproduce successfully. According to Ellen Kamhi, PhD, RN, author of Cycles of Life (M. Evans and Company, 2001), xenoestrogens "aggravate the cell structure and can cause all kinds of changes, from an interruption in the normal function of hormonal release to the development of fibroids and cancer."

In terms of infertility, xenoestrogens are a double-edged sword: Not only do they contribute to infertility, but they also create symptoms that mask other biological causes. That's why Cathy Carlson-Rink, ND, OB/GYN, recommends getting rid of them first as best you can, and recommends a gentle detox as a first step for every couple she sees at her Langley, British Columbia, practice. "You get a clearer picture of what's truly hormonal and what's just the effect of improper digestion and poor liver function," she says.

Supporting the body's detoxification organs-specifically the liver and bowels-carries special importance for women. At different times of the month, a woman's body produces varying levels of its many hormones. When the intricate interplay of those hormones is in balance, the reproductive organs function as they should. But when the body's detoxification systems run at less than full speed, the body can't break down and flush out the hormones during cycle changes. This leads to an overabundance of the wrong hormones at the wrong times of the month, potentially causing reproductive turmoil.

During the detox period, Carlson-Rink instructs both partners to eliminate alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and illicit drugs, all of which interfere with fertility and healthy pregnancy. Kamhi concurs and also recommends a special fasting diet for one to two weeks that consists exclusively of detoxifying vegetable soup (which you can eat to your heart's content), along with a couple pieces of fruit each day.

Certain herbs and supplements can support the body during detoxification. Dandelion, burdock, licorice root, and milk thistle all help the liver to detoxify; psyllium husk, ground flax seeds, and probiotics support the digestive system.

Clean up the diet

The official detox ends after a couple of weeks, but don't pick up the Cheez-Wiz just yet-your long-lasting nutritional changes are just beginning. Joel Evans, MD, OB/GYN, author of The Whole Pregnancy Handbook, recommends all potential parents-to-be eat "a whole-foods diet, which is one where foods are eaten in the forms closest to nature, where foods have a shelf life and there's natural decay." Carlson-Rink stresses the importance of eating foods low on the food chain, because they tend to have fewer toxins. Other general recommendations: Choose organic whenever possible, eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables, reduce red meat, and eat more omega-3 essential fatty acids (from coldwater fish such as wild salmon or ground flax seeds, for instance). Avoid alcohol, caffeine, refined grains, sugar, prepackaged and fast foods, and non-organic meats and dairy.

Several individual nutrient deficiencies-iron, zinc, chromium, selenium, and folic acid, for example-can hinder fertility. But rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach to nutritional supplements, holistic doctors order tests to determine if a person lacks any specific vitamins or minerals. They can then design a targeted diet and supplement routine.

For some people, just improving their diet solves the infertility nightmare. In a study conducted by the British group Foresight-The Association for the Promotion of Preconceptual Care-86 percent of couples with infertility problems achieved healthy pregnancies through an improved diet. (For more information on the Foresight plan, visit their website.)

Herbal support

Because so many underlying conditions can cause infertility, experts hesitate to give general herbal recommendations. "The beautiful thing about herbs is that they all have their subtleties, and which one is more suited to each situation is the art of practice," says Carlson-Rink.

Also, Kamhi cautions against starting fertility-enhancing herbs before giving your body a chance to get into the best shape possible by detoxifying and eating right. "It's not a good idea, because if your body already has trouble detoxifying regular estrogens to the point where you have estrogen dominance, then putting in more estrogenic compounds, even natural ones, is only going to complicate things," she says. She instructs her patients to spend six months to a year on a clean diet before starting any of the commonly prescribed fertility herbs like chaste berry, false unicorn, rhodiola, and shatavaria.

Recipe for pregnancy?

Will a clean diet and a handful of herbs guarantee you a pregnancy? Unfortunately no. But all experts interviewed for this story report high success rates in people who truly take charge of their health. But regardless of whether you become pregnant or you choose a different path to motherhood, such as adoption, says Kamhi, these lifestyle choices will help you become as healthy as possible so that you're "in a better shape to be a parent, and you'll learn more about eating and cooking naturally so you can feed the child the right way. In every way it's a win-win."

Kamhi's Detoxifying Vegetable Soup

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 head cabbage, chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped

1 bunch parsley, chopped

5 kale leaves, chopped

2 sheets nori sea vegetable

4 pieces okra, trimmed and chopped

1 cup uncooked brown rice

2 quarts water

Combine all ingredients in a large soup pot and simmer over low heat for 1 ½ hours. Add Bragg's Amino Acids to taste.

This article reprinted with permission from Alternative Medicine Magazine

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