A healthy, functioning body that is able to properly regulate hormones and the reproductive system will create the best chances for conception and nourishment of a healthy baby. To support the body in doing this, some principles of Food Basics apply. Ideally, a nutrient-dense diet will have been applied for as long as possible, or six months before conception. However, if a whole foods diet is a new practice, then allow for at least three months of dietary preparation and practice. This applies for both mother and father.
While the Food Basics covers traditional foods and the basics for carbs, fats and protein (we suggest you read that post first, if you're unfamiliar), this post will cover some of the vital nutrients that are especially important for conception and pregnancy. All of these nutrients can be found in whole foods grown by Mother Earth. However these days, many of the vitamins and minerals in our food have been diminished due to soil erosion, long-term cultivation and other modern-day agricultural practices. Additionally, these nutrients are only useful if they are properly absorbed. Several factors can hinder digestion and absorption, which is different for everyone. Therefore, to serve as a safety net, some nutrients can be supplemented therapeutically during prep for conception and pregnancy. They should not, however, be used as a substitute for the vitamins and minerals found in real, whole foods.
If you’ve already done your own research about what are the most important nutrients for pregnancy, you’ve most likely found different nutrients highlighted, and perhaps conflicting information. So before we get in the thick of this, let’s take a step back to look at the nutrients in general, and the importance of these regardless of whether you’re pregnant or not.
Essentially we need all nutrients, all the time. When pregnant, a mother’s body will instinctively prioritize nutrients for the fetus, which is why it’s so important for mom to have an optimal supply in her body before conception even occurs.
Every vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient helps the body in several ways, and many nutrients need each other in order to function properly. Nutrients do not act independently of one another; vitamins need minerals in order to be absorbed, and almost all need co-factor nutrients in order to be properly utilized by the body.
Minerals occur in specific ratios. For example, vitamin D aids calcium absorption, and calcium and magnesium balance each other. Taking single vitamin/mineral supplements can throw off these balances. High quality prenatal vitamins will ensure proper ratios of vitamins and minerals, and additional supplementation of single nutrients should only be considered under your physician’s recommendation.
That being said, there’s always a rhyme or reason why your body needs X vitamin or mineral - they’re ALL important! The highlighted nutrients for conception and pregnancy in this post fall in the overlapping space of modern research plus traditional wisdom. Use the information below as a starting place. Focus on the foods highlighted for each nutrient, and then talk to your natural care practitioner about which nutrients to include in your unique supplement regimen.
Commonly recommended vitamins and minerals
Iron - During pregnancy, the body’s need for both iron and folate increases by about 50%. Iron is critical for enzyme systems and for carrying oxygen to the tissues. Plant sources of iron are called non-heme iron; however they are less bioavailable than animal iron sources (found prominently in beef liver and lean ground beef).
Folate - Folate, along with B12, is critical for DNA synthesis and cellular division, as well as for the development of the neural tube that is responsible for the brain and spinal cord. It is also important for the nervous system of the fetus. The need for folate is especially significant at about twenty-eight days after fertilization, which reiterates why nutrient-dense foods are so important well before conception. Folate is naturally found in foods, while folic acids refers to the synthetic form of folate that is often used as a fortifier or supplement. If supplementing, check for “5-methyltetrahydrofolate” or “5-MTH.” It is found in high concentrations of green leafy vegetables such as spinach, turnip greens, asparagus, mustard greens, collard greens, broccoli, lentils, beets and cauliflower. Other good choices include chicken liver and calf liver.
Calcium - One of the most abundant minerals in the body, 99% of calcium in the body is in the bones. Its functions include building and maintaining bones, muscle contraction, hormone regulation and heartbeat regulation. Research has shown that the body will begin to absorb more calcium from the diet during pregnancy, so mothers should ensure that they’re getting enough calcium from whole foods. Calcium can be attained by eating plenty of green leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, bok choy, as well as sesame seeds, sea vegetables, bone broth, sardines and salmon.
Vitamin B6 - Helps to form red blood cells and can also help with morning sickness. It’s also an extremely important B vitamin for the formation of body proteins, structural compounds and chemical transmitters in the nervous system. B6 affects fertility by regulating estrogen and progesterone, increasing chances of conception and decreasing chances of miscarriage. Find this vitamin in foods such as sunflower seeds, walnuts, lentils, brown rice, bananas and avocados.
Iodine - Iodine is important for the thyroid gland, which will be in higher demand for both mom’s own thyroid function, and for the development of the baby’s brain, heart, muscles and pituitary gland. Iodine is abundant in sea vegetables like nori, dulse and wakame. Try sprinkling dulse on top of salads or rehydrating some wakame and adding it to rice.
Less mainstream, yet equally important
DHA - An omega 3-fatty acid, DHA (docosohexaenoic acid), can be converted from ALA (alpa-linolenic acid), which is found in plant oils. However, the conversion rate is no more than 1%, and the process is much more efficient when DHA is pre-formed, as it is in fish oils. The fetus needs DHA for the formation of neurons, important brain lipids and to serve as a precursor that protects neurons from oxidative stress. Find this nutrient especially in wild-caught fish and in lesser amounts in eggs and meats.
Biotin - Biotin deficiency in infants under six-months have symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap) and hair loss. Biotin is manufactured in the intestines by intestinal bacteria, hence the absence of gut flora in newborns may be responsible for cradle cap. Several studies have shown successful treatment of cradle cap with biotin via 2-10 micrograms per day, or liver/ egg yolk to the nursing mother and infant.
Fat Soluble Vitamins: A, E, D, K
Vitamin E - This vitamin is also referred to as tocopherol, derived from the Greek words tokos and phero, meaning “offspring” and “to bear.” Hence, the importance is clear! This name was given to the vitamin based on studies done in the early 1900’s, when rats fed a purified diet without vitamin E became unable to reproduce. Modern research now shows many correlations between vitamin E and health conditions including heart disease, cancer, strokes and viral infections. Vitamin E deficiency is quite rare, and good food sources include wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, asparagus, avocados and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin D - As mentioned earlier, vitamins do not act independently of one another. Both Vitamins A and D are crucial in fetal development. In the late third trimester, the fetal skeleton requires higher amounts of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D to support rapid growth. Food sources include cod liver oil, cold water fish, butter and eggs.
Vitamin A - This vitamin is crucial for reproduction, as well as for growth and development. During fetal development, vitamin A is critical for building healthy lungs that will be able to withstand pollutants and infectious disease. There are conflicting opinions about vitamin A, as too high levels can be toxic. However, this often occurs when there’s a deficiency of vitamin D in the body. Much nutrition research is based on the supplementation of single synthetic vitamins, and frequently ignores the synergistic power of whole foods. When taken from foods, many vitamins occur in appropriate ratios and often do not lead to the accumulation of toxic levels, especially if the diet is well-rounded and balanced, (i.e. you’re not eating the same foods every day). Vitamin A can be consumed in foods such as full fat, pasture-raised milk and butter, liver, eggs and cod liver oil.
Vitamin K - In some cases of mothers with vitamin K deficiency, it has been shown to affect proper facial proportions and development of the fetal nervous system. More specific research is still necessary for this vitamin, but we do know that certain proteins depend on vitamin K, specifically bone Gla protein and matrix Gla protein - responsible for building calcium into bone tissue.
Choline - This nutrient is important for normal brain development. Choline is an important part of one of the brain’s key neurotransmitters acetylcholine. It provides flexibility and structural integrity to cell membranes. One large egg provides 300 mcg of choline, all found in the yolk.
Glycine - Glycine is an amino acid that is considered “conditionally essential” during pregnancy. This means it must be obtained from food, and is not considered essential when not pregnant. It’s vitally important for protein synthesis in the fetus, and a deficiency can potentially be a limiting factor for fetal growth. It can be obtained from skin and bones or bone broths.