Empathy in Conception and Pregnancy

The journey, feelings, and emotions from a doctor’s perspective

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 saying, “Women today need to choose between family and career if they want to succeed at one of those things.” So, I consciously decided that I would choose my career, since I was single and was accepted into Naturopathic Medical School, with four years ahead of me followed by more years of practice to pay off the inevitable student loan debt.

As a naturopathic doctor, I had witnessed my patients struggling with infertility in their twenties; therefore, I knew getting pregnant in my mid-thirties might be an issue. However, my husband and I were committed to having a family. I began my pre-conception journey, and we started trying. Despite being in excellent health, I wondered whether I would be able to get pregnant?

Pre-Conception Health

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 polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, fibroids, autoimmune disorders, and lifestyle factors, affecting the quality of the eggs themselves.

A woman’s fertility journey begins in the womb, so nine months before you lay eyes on the world, your eggs’ destiny has already been dictated. A woman can have as many as seven million eggs in her ovaries when born, but many die off before hitting puberty. The rest will be released every menstrual cycle throughout your lifetime, with their quality continuing to deteriorate as you age.

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 (CoQ10)and pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) help quench free radical damage that impacts your eggs’ quality.

Getting a full workup with a health care 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 activate folic acid optimally. 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!)

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 each month of building a baby. But I was not quite ready for all the feelings, frustrations, and challenges. 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 the names of people I knew well were gone entirely. Tears would appear with minor frustrations, and irritability was a common reaction to minor daily stressors.

Keeping a healthy brain meant balancing my blood sugar by eating more frequent, small meals, which 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 balance my intense sugar cravings. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), was also crucial in supporting my brain and the baby’s neural development, which is key 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 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 digestion.

For my leg cramps, magnesium bisglycinate powder in warm water became part of my nightly routine to ease and help me sleep more comfortably. To keep my immune system healthy, 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 labour.

With only a few weeks to go, I have 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 care practi-tioners, friends, and family, I feel supported, and my fears are subsiding. As my pregnancy journey comes to an end, I have become more empathetic, patient, and have embraced this unique and awe-inspiring process.