Preventing birth defects? Is it possible?
As January comes to an end, the season for baby-making lives on for two more weeks as men half-heartedly scramble at the last minute to plan something romantic for Feb. 14 in hopes of having their spouse throw them a bone.
Late summer into early fall is newborn season. Old train of thought suggests babies were conceived during the winter months with the idea that within nine months summer would be there to welcome the newborn with an assortment of food, whereas the colder months limited the amount of resources available to promote a healthy newborn and provide a wide selection of nutrients for breast-feeding and mom’s own health. Oddly enough, sperm is stronger in the winter months, likely due to warmer weather having an impact on sperm efficiency. Old train of thought still lives, unfortunately we are no longer connected to nature and have shifted away from our natural instincts. The results are still the same though: stronger sperm and increased sex in the winter months help the influx of summer babies.
January marks Birth Defect Prevention Month, and as the month comes to an end and warmer weather returns, more couples venture outside to enjoy the somewhat fresh air and excitement their city offers. For most, this decreases their chances of sex. Mostly because in the winter the story goes: “Hey, it’s too cold to go outside to find someone else and you’re here so we might as well.”
Every factor in a woman’s life impacts the baby’s health during the average nine months of pregnancy: environmental toxins and stressors, spousal stress, parental stress, nutrition, and lifestyle choices affect the growing baby. Consider the umbilical cord; as the main source of blood, nutrients, and oxygen, the toxins mom ingests are transferred to the fetus. A study on umbilical cord blood found over 280 chemicals, including pesticides, mercury, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage.
If conscious choices aren’t made, the fetus’ growth can be altered, resulting in a birth defect. With proper professional care and healthy personal choices, preventing birth defects is possible.
Natural Causes of Birth Defects
Birth defects usually occur within the first trimester when the fetus’ organs are forming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), birth defects affect one in every 33 babies born in the U.S. — at a rate of one baby every 4 ½ minutes.
While some birth defects have a direct cause — e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome, which is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy — a long list of others occur because of genetics or preexisting conditions the mom has. For mothers who do take precautionary measures, giving up wine and cigarettes — tangible products that cause direct impact — may not be enough.
Birth defects can occur naturally due to:
- Conceiving at an older age (35+ years old)
- A family history of birth defects
Traditionally only women aged over 35 were thought to be at risk but men who are over 35 also increase the risk for birth defects; reason being, aging sperm have a decreased ability to reach eggs for fertilization. Obesity and diabetes are pre-existing conditions that can cause birth defects if not proeperly managed during pregnancy. Diabetes can lead to heart defects and birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (NTDs); while obese women have a risk of birthing a baby with heart, limb, and gastrointestinal birth defects. Expecting parents who have family histories of birth defect also greatly increase the risk. In any of these situations, genetic testing is advised to predetermine if the fetus has inherited any birth defects. Different tests offer different results to inform and prepare expectant parents.
Be Cautious Of The “Medicine” Man
Avoiding drugs and substance can help with preventing birth defects. Teratogens are any substance or factor that change the natural development of an embryo. There are a long list of teratogens that should be avoided. Notable ones are:
- Alcohol — causes face, arm, and leg deformities, heart conditions, mental retardation, and fetal growth restriction.
- Cigarettes (whether direct or second hand) — causes fetal growth restriction, premature birth, and alter development of the brain, cardiovascular system, and respiratory system.
- Marijuana (THC) — causes low birth weight, intracranial bleeding, jitteriness, low blood sugar, low calcium levels, and lead to poor feeding, irritability, and rapid breathing. (Although CBD offers many health benefits and may bring relief to nausea and pain associated with pregnancy, consult with your physician before ingesting.)
- Amphetamines/Opioids — causes premature birth, low birth weight, or intracranial bleeding.
- Cocaine — causes miscarriage, fetal growth restriction, inhibited urinary system or genital tract development, microcephaly, and neurobehavioral problems.
Although illicit drugs cause birth defects, everyday medication may also play a role.
Medications, whether prescribed or OTC, have always had health implications. While acetaminophen for a headache can increase a child’s risk of ADHD, NSAIDs can rob fetus’ of key prenatal nutrients such as folic acid. Big Pharma-produced pills should be reconsidered unless absolutely necessary.
Jacqueline Darna MHSc AA-C, CEO & Medical Inventor of NoMo Nausea notes:
All of the current prescribed medications for heartburn, nausea in pregnancy, and morning sickness relief have all been determined to have side effects not just on the mothers but also on the babies, who at that point in time have a very immature liver and are unable to process high quantities of medication.
Morning sickness and nausea can be naturally remedied through lightly inhaling peppermint extract or drinking fresh ginger root tea. In cases where mom has a pre-existing condition, she should consult with her physician to discuss what impact, if any, her current medication may have on the fetus, and see if there are any other options available.
There is an extensive list of common medications that cause birth defects: Zoloft, Prozac, Aleve, Bayer, and tetracycline are only a fraction.
Infections are another cause of birth defects. The acronym “CHEAP TORCHES” was created as a way for expectant parents to be aware of infections that can also impact the growth of the fetus:
C: Chickenpox and shingles
H: Hepatitis B, C, D, E
E: Enteroviruses, a group of viruses including poliovirus
P: Parvovirus B19, also known as fifth disease
O: Other infections such as group B streptococcus, listeria, candida
H: Herpes simplex virus
E: Everything else sexually transmitted such as gonorrhea and chlamydia
It’s Time For A Reset
Parents who plan their pregnancy are at a slighter advantage when it comes to preventing birth defects. Dr. Rachel Carlton Abrams, M.D., family practice physician, integrative health expert and author of recently published BodyWise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing, believes nutrition is one of the most important factors in decreasing birth defects risks.
If a pregnancy is being planned, Dr. Abrams recommends detoxing before conception. “What mom eats and what mom has eaten throughout her lifetime is stored in her body … your bloodstream is the baby’s bloodstream.” Although all toxins will not be purged, depending on the type of detox, it can reset mom’s body. Many people who detox do so in order to change their habits and form a new nutrition plan. The goal is to transition away from the toxic foods mom may have been consuming and shift her eating habits into being more mindful, clean, and conscious for both herself and the fetus.
Nutrients also play a huge role in assuring a healthy newborn. Dr. Abrams states, “Fruit and vegetables, healthy protein, and [avoiding] most of the evils of the food supply, whether it’s trans fatty acids, preservatives, and chemicals in processed food” will make a significant impact in the nutrients the fetus receives. For instance, research from the Department of Nutritional Science, University of Toronto, suggests non-organic soy may cause birth defects; reason being: 90 percent of soy seeds are GMO. GMO crops are relentlessly sprayed with pesticides which are toxic to both mom and the fetus.
“Pesticides make a big difference, not only in your health but the baby’s also,” adds Dr. Abrams. Consider RoundUp, a Monsanto brand pesticide which has been linked to thousands of deaths. Glyphosate, one of the active ingredients, causes reproductive problems and birth defects. When purchasing any type of produce at the market, consider the Clean 15. Produce on this list have the least pesticide residue present and can be purchased without being organic to help save money. Produce found on the Dirty Dozen, however, should always be purchased organic to decrease the risk of ingesting pesticide residue.
Your household products also increase the risk of birth defects and should be part of your detox. Dr. Abrams lists these household tips:
- Get rid of Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, nonstick) pans.
- Avoid plastic bottles made of polycarbonate 7 (contains BPA).
- Do not eat or drink items heated in plastic.
- Select “green cleaners” rather than toxic cleaning agents.
- Choose “green” paints, finishes, structural materials, and insulation for any remodeling projects.
Moisturizing For Two
Topical products also play major roles in preventing birth defects says Dr. Abrams. “Makeup, lotion, and shampoo all go directly into the skin, stay in the body, and is shared with the fetus when you’re pregnant.“ Petroleum Jelly, for instance, a popular “lubricant” contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a known carcinogen that also causes reproductive and birth defects. Even baby powder, a commonly used product for “freshness,” has been linked to ovarian cancer — imagine its impact on a developing fetus.
In 2011, a group of researchers tested lip gloss, mascara, foundation, blush, eye shadows, and eyeliner for toxins. Of the 49 samples, every single product tested for heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel, beryllium, thallium, and selenium — all direct causes of birth defects.
The best solution? Opt for organic, fair trade, and non-GMO solutions.
Dr. Abrams adds:
The easiest way to avoid toxins form these products is to use simple products. Instead of buying lotion with lots of chemicals, use coconut oil or olive oil. Or if you want to use lotion, go to a health store because most of those brands will be cleaner.”
Preventing Birth Defects
Preventing birth defects can be accomplished by taking cautionary measures, says Vineet Bhandari, M.D., Chief, Section of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, and Oge Menkiti, M.D., Medical Director, Regional Fetal Evaluation Center at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children:
While some birth defects are hereditary, family history does not always determine the outcome of a pregnancy. Some birth defects are preventable or can be treated with the right medication and care, which is why it is crucial to meet with your doctor before you begin trying to get pregnant and regularly throughout your pregnancy to ensure the necessary steps are being taken to minimize the risk of potential hereditary birth defects.
During the month of January, the hashtags #1in33 and #PreventToProtect were used throughout social media to bring awareness to birth defects. Mothers shared their experiences and provided tips to show support for current and future moms.
— Sandra Salerno (@CMV_Mom) January 6, 2017
Preventing birth defects is difficult, but with planning and awareness your risk decreases. Additionally, it is important to make sure the following six nutrients make it into your daily diet.
1. Folic Acid is crucial for the production of DNA and RNA and vital when cells and tissues are growing rapidly, making it a great supplement for preventing birth defects. Folic is viewed as one of the most important prenatal vitamins for preventing birth defects. Dr. Bhandari and Dr. Menkiti add, “Women should take adequate amounts of folic acid before and during pregnancy to dramatically lower the risk of spina bifida and other birth defects, as this B vitamin is proven to be a highly effective prevention tool.“ Methylated folic acid is preferred, however, says Dr. Abrams, since it is a form that can be assimilated by everyone. “Not every person will have the ability to process folic acid. Some people have a deficiency in their ability to activate folate acid to work and provide the necessary benefits.” Methylated folic acid will resolve this issue.
- Brussels sprouts
- Mustard greens
Suggested Daily Dose: 600 mcg
2. Iron is another excellent supplement that can help in preventing birth defects; it’s necessary for producing extra blood for mom and fetus. Reduced blood levels can lead to anemia, lower birth weight, and spina bifida.
- Dried beans
- Dried fruits
- Salmon (Avoid farmed GMO)
Suggested Daily Dose: 27 mg/day
3. Magnesium works in the body to support bone, protein, and fatty acid formation. Additionally, it relaxes and helps blood clot properly. This is useful in promoting healthier birth weights, decreasing the risk of premature birth, and cerebral palsy.
- Dark Chocolate
Suggested Daily Dose:
Pregnant women age 18 and younger: 400 milligrams (mg) per day
Pregnant women ages 19 to 30: 350 mg per day
Pregnant women age 31 and older: 360 mg per day
Magnesium should not be confused with magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), which is an inorganic form of magnesium and a known teratogen. Studies show Magnesium sulfate increases the risk of birth defects.
4. Calcium is essential for bone and teeth formation, as they require the most calcium the body uses. However, nerve cells, body tissues, blood, and other body fluids require calcium also. Without adequate calcium intake, the fetus risks poor bone and muscle formation.
- Green leafy vegetables
- Almonds, Brazil nuts, or sunflower seeds
Suggested Daily Dose: 1300 mg
5. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a healthy mom and baby. An increase in omega-3 fatty acids is ideal for nervous system development. Since the body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own, supplementation is needed.
- Krill Oil
- Fish Oil
- Fatty fish including anchovies, salmon, mackerel, tuna (non-GMO)
Suggested Daily Dose: 200 mg
Opt for vegan options to reduce risk of GMO, pesticides, and other contaminants..
6. Vitamin D is not truly a vitamin. When sunlight hits our skin, vitamin D is synthesized in our skin and then absorbed into our body. Studies show higher doses of sunlight decrease risks of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia in mom and soft bones and rickets in newborns.
- Mushrooms grown in sunlight
- Beef liver
Be mindful that during winter and spring, depending on where you are, sunlight may be limited and this poses the greatest risk of limiting production of vitamin D.
Suggested Daily Dose: 4,000 IU minimum
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Your physician is there to guide you through your pregnancy, whether it’s your first or fifth child. Keep the channel of communication open and never hesitate to ask questions, do research, and get second opinions. Your child’s health is in your hand and the more you take charge of the situation, the greater your success at preventing birth defects.
Most importantly, with any of the supplements above, consult with your physician. Different body types and environments require different dosages to truly benefit from supplements.