The journey, feelings, and emotions from a doctor’s perspective
Jennifer Brix, ND
We often hear that our Thirties are the new Twenties. Perhaps this is true for many when it comes to the “marriage, work, and kids” perspective, but women’s ovaries and their eggs don’t get any younger. These decades are considered the most transformative period of our adult lives, and the decision to have children can often move other priorities out of the way, especially for women.
At the age of 23, a university professor asked me if I wanted to have a family. I, obviously unsure, said, “Yes, maybe, one day”. She followed this by assertively saying, “Women today need to choose between family and career if they want to really succeed at one of those things”. So, I consciously made the decision that I would choose my career, since I was single and had been accepted into Naturopathic Medical school, with 4 years ahead of me followed by more years of practice to pay off the inevitable student loan debt.
It was not until my mid-thirties that having a family became a larger priority. With so many women struggling with infertility at 29, I knew I had my work cut out for me, so I began my preconception journey then. At the ripe age of 39 my husband and I started trying. But despite all our other boxes checked off, I was now questioning whether I would be able to get pregnant.
In Canada, roughly one in five first-time births are to women over the age of 35, which I see in my practice with 30-something women seeking support for optimizing fertility. Aside from age, other causes of female infertility include PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, autoimmune disorders, and lifestyle factors which can affect the quality of the eggs themselves.
A woman’s eggs begin their development, when they themselves are developing in their mother. So, 9 months before you lay eyes on the world, the destiny of your eggs have been dictated. Although you can have as many as seven million eggs in your ovaries when you are born, many die off before hitting puberty, and the rest will be released every menstrual cycle throughout your fertile lifetime, with their quality continuing to deteriorate as you age.
"In Canada, roughly one in five first-time births are to women over the age of 35, which I see in my practice with 30-something women seeking support for optimizing fertility.”
To preserve the quality of a woman’s eggs, the mitochondria of these cells need support. Mitochondria are the energy-producing organelles in our egg cells, but eventually, like an old battery, they will run out of energy to keep the egg cell going. If you are a woman in your thirties or beyond, healthy mitochondria mean better eggs. To keep your mitochondria happy, antioxidants from a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and specific supplements such as Coenzyme Q10 and pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) help quench free radical damage that impact your eggs’ quality.
Getting a full workup with your health are practitioner and taking a prenatal vitamin with active folate should also start before conception. Many of us have a gene mutation affecting the ability to optimally activate folic acid. If you don’t know what your DNA says, take a methylated form anyway, as it can’t hurt. Folic acid is crucial for a healthy pregnancy early on, and often by the time you find out you have conceived, it’s already doing its job.
Maintaining a Healthy (and Happy!) Pregnancy
After we successfully conceived, my focus shifted to having the healthiest pregnancy possible. I reviewed all the symptoms, bodily changes, potential complications, and exciting moments that can happen in each month of building a baby. But I was not quite ready for all the feelings, frustrations, and challenges I had helped so many women with. Empathy is not learned, it is developed, and it grew immensely in those early months for my pregnant patients- past and present.
My first shock was that pregnancy brain is a real thing! There was an instance where after grocery shopping by myself, I returned to my car and sat in the passenger seat waiting to go. I forgot where light switches were in my house, and names of people I knew well were completely gone. Tears would appear with the most minor frustrations, and irritability was a regular reaction to minor daily stressors.
Keeping a healthy brain meant balancing my blood sugar by eating more frequent, small meals. This also helped me stave off heartburn and gestational diabetes. When I broke down and had to have a bowl of ice cream, I added a heaping tablespoon of chia seeds to help balance my intense sugar cravings. Supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids, in particular DHA, was also a key part of supporting my brain, but also the baby’s neural development, which is especially crucial in the second and third trimesters.
Constant headaches plagued me for two weeks and were completely unexpected. Acupuncture and chiropractic care became a lifesaver. Chewable ginger was my safe go-to for nausea, and relaxation techniques were implemented on a regular basis to keep my stress levels low and ensure a solid sleep which I knew may soon be over (temporarily!). Chamomile tea helped both calm me and support my overall digestion.
For my leg cramps, magnesium citrate powder in warm water became part of my nightly routine to ease these and help me sleep more comfortably. To keep my immune system strong, I made sure to take additional vitamin D, and echinacea at the first sign of a sniffle. Towards the end, red raspberry leaf tea became my midday drink, which was welcome in the cold winter months. This gentle herb taken closer to your expected delivery date nourishes the uterus and prepares for labor.
With only a few weeks to go, I have my moments of fear of what is to come. There will undoubtedly be changes to my lifestyle (I CHERISH my eight solid hours of sleep) and emotional challenges will arise. But with my tribe of health practitioners, friends, and family, I feel supported and my fears are subsiding. As my journey of pregnancy comes to an end, I have become more empathetic, patient, and have embraced this most amazing, and awe-inspiring process.
Things I Learned to Support a Healthy Conception and Pregnancy
1. Before conceiving, get a comprehensive workup from your health care provider to assess your iron levels and check for any imbalances in thyroid and female hormones function
2. Take a prenatal vitamin with active methylated folate
3. Keep your mitochondria happy with antioxidants like CoQ10, PQQ, and a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables
4. Supplement with the essential fatty acid DHA to support “Pregnancy Brain” and that of your developing baby
5. Acupuncture, ginger, and relaxation techniques may become your best friend!
6. Stick to category A herbs, like chamomile, echinacea, ginger, and red raspberry
7. Have patience, embrace the process, and don’t fear the journey