Whether or not you’re baby-minded right now, it can sometimes be hard to summon up huge excitement at the idea of bringing a child into a world far more toxic than the one into which our parents—not to mention our grandparents—brought us. You know the litany: There are pesticides in food, flame retardants in clothing and furniture, and pollution in the air we breathe.
But once you’re pregnant—or even just thinking about trying—you may well wonder if the toxins we all absorb might have an effect on your fertility or on having a healthy baby. The truth is that because conventional medicine doesn’t routinely test the “body burden” of chemicals we carry around all the time in our bodies, no one knows for sure how many we typically absorb. A small 2008 study of teenage girls, led by the Washigton, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) detected 16 hormone-altering chemicals from common beauty products. Every girl in the study tested positive for parabens, which are used as preservatives in cosmetics and have been linked to cancer and hormone disruption. These and other chemicals can be passed along to a child in utero.
Other research by EWG found that infants are typically born “pre-polluted,” with over 200 toxic industrial chemicals circulating in their bodies, which they’ve obviously absorbed prior to being born. It doesn’t matter where parents live, either, because consumer, food, medical, and industrial chemicals circulate via air, water, soil, and food, and they’re found all over the world. And Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a nonprofit advocacy group, says that the earlier in life that toxic exposure occurs, the more powerfully these chemicals affect a child’s development ongoing from that day forward.
Infants are typically born 'pre-polluted,' with over 200 toxic industrial chemicals circulating in their bodies.
“Mercury is one of the most damaging toxins, affecting both parents and baby. It affects the brain, the nervous system, and hormonal functions, [possibly] causing symptoms like ADHD, pain, attention problems, and fatigue,” says Andreanna Rainville, R.N., a holistic nurse at the Holistic Healing Arts clinic, in Seattle. In addition, “gasoline and many cosmetics contain toluene, which can disrupt hormones and cause kidney and liver damage.”
Concern over toxins is why more people who are intending to start families—whether immediately or later—are getting their health checked out “pre-conception” so their kids get as healthy a start as possible. At a pre-conception medical checkup, a physician will advise that you stop smoking, using recreational drugs, and drinking alcohol, and she may want to review your prescriptions, since some medications can cause birth defects.
A preconception visit to an integrative medicine specialist, though, may involve testing hormone levels to ascertain whether both parents have the right endocrine balance to conceive, says Rainville. A naturopath or another kind of integrative specialist may also look at the levels of environmental pollutants and heavy metals in your blood, as well as essential nutrients to ensure you don’t have any nutritional deficiencies that could lead to birth defects.
For women, while having a child does carry some risk, when it comes to toxins, pregnancy actually lowers your risk. Why? Because through both pregnancy and breastfeeding, mothers download a portion of their bodily load of toxins into their children. Most women aren’t happy to hear that, of course.
The simple math is this: Toxins will continue to compound over your child’s lifetime, once he or she is born, but since the earlier the exposure the more harmful it is, one of the best things you can do is to lower your own levels before you get pregnant. Rainville says there are two ways to do this: avoidance and detoxification. Although many toxins cannot be eliminated, some can be better avoided. Try to follow the tips below for a minimum of six months prior to conception (ideally, both parents should try to detoxify because toxins can also impact a future father’s sperm):
• Avoid the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables such as peaches, strawberries, apples, peppers, and celery. Eat organic ones instead.
• Steer clear of cosmetics and beauty products that contain toluene, phthalates, xylene, and parabens. (EWG has a comprehensive list.) Parabens have been found in cancerous tissue, and phthalates have been linked to abnormal sex organ development in males.
• Eat organically raised meat and dairy to limit exposure to hormones and antibiotics. Hormones given to animals can alter both fetal and child development, as well as contribute to cancers, says the American Public Health Association, and pesticide exposure in utero is linked to lower IQ levels.
• Eat fish rarely. In January 2013, the Biodiversity Research Institute found that 84 percent of fish was found to have unsafe mercury levels.
• Limit use of nail polish. Even “three-free” brands aren’t ones you can trust. These lines of nail polish are so-named because, after pressure by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, many brands (including the popular OPI line) began to omit the “toxic trio”—ibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene—but these polishes still contain some toxic chemicals, such as xylene, which in animal studies delayed fetal growth and development, and acetone, which has produced kidney and liver damage in animal studies.
The second part of Rainville’s recommendation for anyone wanting to become a parent is to detox for at least six to 12 months prior to conception. Here’s how to get started on a detoxification program:
• Stick with a healthy, whole-foods diet. Rainville recommends eating organic fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins at every meal. Amino acids, which are found in proteins, are essential for tissue repair and heavy-metal detox. Avoiding sweets, soda, fast foods, additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners is also advisable.
• Take probiotics to support your digestion (this helps release built-up toxins); vitamin C for energy; and essential fatty acids for brain and cellular support.
• Use herbs and teas that help other organs release toxins (like dandelion tea for the liver); Ashwagandha and Rhodiola for the adrenals; and red root for the lymphatic system.
• Drink lots of water, with a dash of Himalayan or Celtic sea salt for mineral balance.
• Use saunas to release toxins via sweating (make sure you’re definitely not pregnant if you’re using a sauna).
Detox is important because even if you live a saintly life, there are still some chemicals, like xylene, that cannot be avoided. “Xylene is an ingredient in air pollution and smog,” explains Rainville. “It’s been shown to increase the risk of miscarriages as well as causing birth defects, but both parents can detoxify from it. Alcohol decreases the ability to excrete xylene, which is why it’s important for couples planning to conceive to cut out alcohol.”
If you want a more personalized plan with an integrative medicine bent, you can consult a healthcare provider like Rainville or a naturopath. These specialists typically make it easy to get tested for toxins, chemicals, heavy metals and anything else adding to your “body burden.” Plus they may also be able to help couples with problems conceiving and recurrent miscarriages.
And if you’re ready to take your detoxing to the next step, to help others and the planet, you can work with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families to ask the government to study and regulate 80,000-plus chemicals currently in use—most of which are currently untested.
Are you concerned about all the toxins around us when it comes to getting pregnant and having a healthy child? Have you ever followed a detox or cleansing program?
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Alison Rose Levy has covered health, food, and the environment on Huffington Post, AlterNet, PsychologyToday, and Intent.com. The writer of two best-selling health books, Alison talks to health and eco leaders on her weekly radio program, Connect the Dots, on the Progressive Radio Network. @alisonroselevy | TakePart.com