September 03, 2014
Preconception Health: What to Avoid

Did you know that many women of indigenous cultures like the Kikuyu tribe, the Bantu people of Southeast Africa—the largest ethnic group in Kenya—traditionally begin a special diet six months prior to marriage to prepare for pregnancy?(¹)

Research has shown that certain birth defects can be traced to nutritional deficiencies prior to conception.(²) But, it's not just the mother's health that matters.

Preconception Nutrition

Long gone are the days when it was thought that women held a more significant role in conception than men. Both men and women play a vital role in the process of becoming pregnant, as well as contributing to the long-term health of the child. We now know that without good nutrition and lifestyle management (including sleep, exercise, and stress management), for both men and women, your chances of becoming pregnant diminish.

Facts for Men:

  • Genes expressed from the father are directly responsible for the development of the placenta.
  • Currently 5-10% of all infertility is stress related, making stress management an integral part of conception. (3)
  • Average male sperm counts have dropped by almost 50% between 1939-1990. The number of men with extremely low sperm counts tripled, and the number of men with high counts decreased. (4)
  • Toxic exposure to endocrine disruptors is a very real and current issue affecting female and male fertility health.

So what are men and women who want to improve their health before conception supposed to do?

We've created an extensive list of things to do before pregnancy. After you learn what to avoid, what to include and the core lifestyle areas that deserve your attention, share this article with others you know who may be considering or planning to get pregnant.

Food to Avoid Before Pregnancy

There are many lists available that include everything that could interfere with conception health. The foods and substances listed below are harmful to your bodies if eaten in excess whether we want to get pregnant or not. You need to decrease our toxic load to improve our fertility, reproductive, and overall health.

To improve fertility and your baby's long-term health, avoid the following 3-6 months preconception:

1) Foods that interfere with preconception health

These foods can decrease your nutrient reserves, and add to cellular damage and oxidative stress—inflammation. Living and breathing under the sun will cause some damage to your cells. This is normal. But often there are specific foods/toxins/substances/lifestyle that increase the amount of damage done. Oxidative stress is the result of this damage—causing imbalance between free radicals (damage) and antioxidants reserves (healing/balance). This stress often manifests as inflammation.

  • Refined foods—white flour, white sugar, white…
  • Added sugars—mainly found in what we drink like soda, fruit drinks, tea, coffee, energy and sports drinks, and flavored milks
  • Here's a list of natural and artificial sweeteners: agave nectar, sucrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, brown rice syrup, xylitol, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, sorbitol, fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, erythritol, Nutrasweet® (aspartame), Splenda® (sucralose), acesulfame-K, Sweet One, Sunett, Sweet N'Low®, brown sugar, demerara sugar, stevia, invert sugar, maltodextrin, maltose, maple syrup, confectioner's sugar, turbinado sugar, fruit juice concentrate, honey, molasses, barley malt, cane sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, caramel.(5)
  • High glycemic foods
  • Processed foods and anything with artificial additives.
  • Fried foods
  • Margarine (high in trans fatty acids)
  • Trans Fat - increases LDL cholesterol (damaging), decreases HDL cholesterol (protective), increases triglycerides, adds to inflammation, and even the United States FDA has issued a statement saying that trans fats are "not generally recognized as safe."
  • Refined vegetable oils

2) Substances that interfere with preconception health

Similar to the foods above that can decrease your nutrient reserves, and add to cellular damage and inflammation, these substances should be avoided because they increase the amount of damage and imbalance to your body, decreasing your reproductive health.

  • Alcohol
  • Intravenous and recreational drugs
  • Certain pharmaceuticals
  • Check with your primary care provider to ensure you are not taking anything that could interfere with a fertile environment and put you and your partner's conception health at risk. (There are also certain pharmaceuticals that can inhibit your ability to detoxify well. The list is long, and it is important to identify which pharmaceuticals will interact with your ability to detox your body. Some of the most common pharmaceuticals that inhibit your detox pathways include antidepressants, antihistamines, and benzodiazepines.)
  • Tobacco

3) Chemical and Toxic Exposure

  • Avoid exposure to heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and lead. (Add in an explanation of where your average person might be exposed to these things so this can be more easily applied.)

4) Too much stress

When it comes to stress, too little is not good, too much is not good (but most people you know have too much, not too little).

We know that healthy and balanced exposures to stress during pregnancy will actually help your baby's central nervous system robustly develop. So what's the balance? Stress is a necessary part of your hormonal process, but left unmanaged and out of balance, it can lead to adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, insomnia, inflammation, anxiety, and poor fertility health.

Did you know that in one study, 34% of infertile women became pregnant after being trained in a relaxation technique? (6)

The Dangers of Endocrine Disruptors and How to Avoid Them (7)

Each of the below items is an endocrine disruptor. This means any substance that alters the function and causes imbalance or damage to any of your endocrine organs. There are many endocrine organs throughout your body, starting at your head and ending at your reproductive organs like ovaries and testes. In addition to the specific recommendations below each item, eat a rainbow of foods daily. A rainbow of food daily is your health insurance for all oxidative stress that occurs in your body. These colors (red/blue/purple/orange/yellow/green/white/tan) ensure that your body replenishes its antioxidant reserves, protecting your body from further damage.

Bisphenol-A: BPA has been linked to everything from breast and others cancers to reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty and heart disease.

According to government tests, 93% of Americans have BPA in their bodies.

  • BPA is found in cash register receipts, most canned foods, and plastics.
  • Avoid the recycling label #7.
  • Eat a rainbow of foods daily – those foods contain phytonutrients that help with detoxification of endocrine disruptors like BPA.

Dioxin: Recent research has shown that exposure to low levels of dioxin in the womb and early in life can both permanently affect sperm quality and lower the sperm count in men during their prime reproductive years.

  • The American food supply is contaminated—mostly animal products like meat, eggs, dairy, and butter contain this chemical.
  • Choose organic as much as possible.

Atrazine: Atrazine is widely used on the majority of corn and sorghum crops in the United States, and consequently it's a ubiquitous drinking water contaminant. Researchers have found that exposure to even low levels (30X lower than levels allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency) of the herbicide atrazine can turn male frogs into females that produce completely viable eggs. Recent studies have also found a possible link between human birth defects and low birth weight, with atrazine exposure in the womb.

  • Buy a drinking water filter certified to remove atrazine.
  • Choose organic produce when possible.

Phthalates: Studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities.

  • Avoid the recycling label #3.
  • Use glass or stainless steel as much as possible.
  • Avoid personal care products that contain pthalates as an ingredient.

Perchlorate: Competes with iodine and its role in thyroid health—these hormones regulate metabolism in adults and are critical for proper brain and organ development in infants and young children.

  • Use a reverse osmosis water filter.
  • Include iodine rich foods daily—seaweed, eggs, strawberries.

PBDEs (Fire Retardants): In 1999, a group of Swedish scientists studying women's breast milk discovered something totally unexpected—the milk contained an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in fire retardants, and the levels had been doubling every five years since 1972. These chemicals can imitate thyroid hormones in your body and disrupt its activity. The disruption is associated with lower IQ.

  • Avoid reupholstering foam furniture.
  • Take care when replacing old carpet.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.

Perflourinated Chemicals (PFOA): Did you know that 99% of Americans have PFOAs in their bodies and they have been shown to be "completely resistant to biodegradation." PFOA exposure has been linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney disease, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, among other health issues.

  • Avoid non-stick pans.
  • Avoid stain/water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture and carpets.

Organophosphate Pesticides: Organophosphates can interfere with the way testosterone communicates with cells. They can lower testosterone and alter thyroid hormone levels. Despite extensive studies linking exposure to effects on brain development, behavior and fertility, organophosphates are still among the most common pesticides in use today.

  • Buy organic produce when possible.
  • Check the Environmental Working Group website for the most up to date list of produce that contains the highest levels of pesticide residue.

Glycol Ethers: One outcome study in rats showed that shrunken testicles were the effect of exposure from glycol ethers. These chemicals "may damage fertility or the unborn child." Children who were exposed to glycol ethers from paint in their bedrooms had substantially more asthma and allergies.

  • Avoid products with ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME).

How & Why to Avoid Heavy Metals Before Pregnancy (7)

Lead—Lead is harmful to almost every organ system in the body and has been linked to an astounding amount of health effects: permanent brain damage, lowered IQ, hearing loss, miscarriage, premature birth, increased blood pressure, kidney damage and nervous system problems. Lead may affect your body by disrupting your hormones. In animals, lead has been found to lower sex hormone levels. Studies have also shown that children with healthy diets absorb less lead.

  • Choose healthy foods daily.
  • Carefully remove old paint when repainting.

Arsenic—Arsenic messes with your hormones! Specifically, it can interfere with normal hormone functioning in the glucocorticoid system that regulates how our bodies process sugars and carbohydrates. What does that mean for you? Well, disrupting this specific system has been linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immune suppression, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, growth retardation and high blood pressure.

  • Find a water filter that is certified to remove arsenic.

Mercury—linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immune suppression, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, growth retardation and high blood pressure. Pregnant women are the most at risk from the toxic effects of mercury, since the metal is known to concentrate in the fetal brain and can interfere with brain development.

  • Choose wild salmon, wild trout, wild fish.
  • Avoid predatory fish like shark and swordfish and limit tuna

A Healthy World Starts With Preconception Nutrition

In summary, you can reduce your exposure to these toxins by eating a rainbow of foods daily and following our recommendations above. Click here to read part 2 of this series and learn what foods to include for healthy nutrition before pregnancy.

We are working toward optimizing health for you, your family, and the world. Our thought is this. Healthy Mom (and Dad!). Healthy Baby. Healthy World. It starts with preconception nutrition and lifestyle management. Adopt empowered choices, as consistently as you can.

Have a happy and healthy day!



1: Schmid, R, Traditional Foods Are your Best Medicine, Rochester, VT, Healing Arts Press; 1997 2: Whitney, T., Taking Charge of Your Fertility, New York, NY, Harper Collins Publishers; 1995 3: Rosenthal, M., The Fertility Sourcebook, Lincolnwood, IL, Lowell House, 1998 4: Colborn, T., Dumanosky, D., & Meyers, J., Our Stolen Future, New York, NY, Penguin; 1996 5: Minich, Deanna, Comprehensive Guide For the IFM Cardiometabolic Food Plan, Institute for Functional Medicine, 2014 6: Pizzorno, J., Total Wellness, Rocklin, CA Prima Publishing; 1998 7: Dirty List of Endrocrine Disruptors, 12 Hormone Altering Chemicals and How to Avoid Them, Environmental Working Group,, July 24, 2014

Posted on Sep 03, 2014