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Why can't I get pregnant?

My eggs are fried!

Conception....Pregnancy....Birth....Bliss.... This is the joyous journey for many lucky couples who effortlessly plan and experience the birth of a new baby. For some couples, however, it's just not that simple. For partners who experience problems conceiving a child and for women who have difficulty maintaining a full term pregnancy, the birth of a child can seem like an impossible dream.

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Witness a friend of mine, Judy S., who happily discovered she was pregnant just one day after missing her period by using a home testing kit. She immediately phoned her regular doctor and was given a prescription for vitamins which she filled. But within a few weeks she experienced that indescribable dread that something was amiss; sure enough a few days later, a second test confirmed Judy was not pregnant and shortly after that she had a heavy, painful period. "I didn't even make it to my first prenatal doctor's visit," Judy mourned. "I had a name picked out for a baby that barely got a start inside my womb." Fortunately, for women like Judy S., the chance for delivering healthy babies is becoming less a daydream and more a likelihood.

And, while all couples can benefit from the practices encouraged at Preconceptual Care, an innovative program now offered at Rhinebeck Health Center, their techniques are bringing new hope to couples who are beating the odds against past infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, malformation and therapeutic termination of a pregnancy.

Rhinebeck Health Center, a primary care facility specializing in nutritional and preventive treatments of chronic diseases, began the Preconceptual Care Program in September 2000. Dr. Michael Compain and center staff trained with England's Belinda Barnes, who pioneered this project at the Foresight Program, a registered charity that works with couples experiencing infertility and miscarriage. "This program fits well with our model of nutritional and environmental medicine," reports Dr. Compain.

First Step- Eat Right

The goal of the Preconceptual Care Program is to eliminate, as much as possible, all health problems in both partners proven by research to cause or increase the likelihood of infertility, miscarriage and malformation. Four to six months before conception, couples focus on the importance of good nutrition. Program guidelines include avoiding refined carbohydrates and products like cakes and biscuits made with white flour. Excessive tea, coffee, sugar and saturated fats are also avoided.

Increasing fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet along with the use of organically grown, unsprayed produce, additive free foods, fresh fish and organically raised meat and poultry are highly recommended. The elimination of tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, food additives, pesticides and non-essential medications and over the counter drugs is strongly advised.

Measures are also taken to reduce levels of heavy toxic metals in the body resulting from pollution, drinking water, lead paint and other environmental hazards.

The Focus is on Mom and Dad

Couples are screened for genitourinary infections like herpes, chlamydia and yeast infections-all shown to contribute to infertility, miscarriage and premature birth.

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Care is taken to treat nutrient deficiencies, supplementing specific minerals that may be lacking but which are needed by the bodies of both partners for the reproductive process to begin and for the birth of a healthy baby to follow.

Magnesium is particularly important for muscle tone; deficiency can result in miscarriage. High copper levels coupled with low zinc and manganese can also lead to miscarriage, malformation and premature birth.

Poor sperm count, low motility and deformed sperm can also be a hazard to fetal development. This program focuses on the health of the male as well as female partners making it necessary to supplement deficiencies, cleanse toxic metals, treat infection and modify the male's lifestyle as well.

While all the factors may not be relevant in all couples, the program's success is based on a comprehensive approach to reduce all possible negative influences.

"Depending on the person's lifestyle, this can be a rigorous program," explains Dr. Michael Compain. "Imagine taking some things out of your life that we take for granted like caffeine and processed foods. If men stop drinking caffeine, for example, they can dramatically reduce the risk of miscarriage by as much as 50%. The harder a couple works at the program, the better the results. Our goal is to reduce the total load of toxins as much as one conceivably can for each program participant."

Early Research and Results

The Preconceptual Care program was first heralded in a 1990 research study by England's University of Surrey in which the progress of 367 couples was studied and the remarkable effectiveness of the program was documented. The women ranged in age from 22-45 years and the men from 25-59 years. By the study's end, 89% of the couples had given birth. The average age of the newborns was 38.5 weeks.

An astonishing 327 babies were born to the couples who went through the Preconceptual Care Program. But even more phenomenal-there were no miscarriages, malformations, no births before 36 weeks and no babies with a birth weight below five pounds, three ounces. This data compares to the national averages of 92 miscarriages, 33 low birth weight babies and 11 malformations. Of the 204 infertile couples in the group, a startling 175 (86%) gave birth to healthy babies.

Something for Everyone

"Ideally the Preconceptual Care Program should be followed by all couples seeking a healthy pregnancy," emphasizes Dr. Compain. "It's a natural approach to creating an optimally healthy sperm and egg prior to conception. It demonstrates that how we treat our bodies preconceptually has a dramatic effect on birth outcomes." He goes on to add, "We are all aware that sperm counts and fertility rates have declined as our environment has become more toxic and our food supply more adulterated. This program seems to turn back the clock and eliminate some of the troubling environmental issues. We are able to see the difference in the health of the egg and sperm with dramatic results."

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Most environmental hazards-including alcohol and smoking-can do the most damage in the beginning stages of the pregnancy when cell division is highest. This program recommends these substances need to be avoided before conception, not when the mother discovers she is pregnant. Couples are encouraged to avoid conception prior to the four to six month period of the preconception program, but may begin conception anytime after four months into the program.

Low Tech, High Impact

"The program is low tech, non-toxic and non-invasive," says Dr. Compain. "It's a dramatic demonstration of clean healthy living and what it can do. These babies also have much lower incidences of behavior problems, sleep problems and ADHD issues. The implications are very broad."

The cost for an initial consultation is $325 per couple and includes the completion and analysis of a comprehensive questionnaire and food diary. Along with smoking history, alcohol and drug use, caffeine consumption and current medical conditions, the exposure to the following items is also documented and discussed: aluminum cookware, use of antacids, canned foods, coffee-mate, food additives, moth balls, pesticides, photocopiers, solvents and gas stoves or heating.

For couples who have infertility issues, previous history of low birth weight infants, premature or stillborn babies or who have experienced sudden infant death syndrome; or for older couples including women over 40; or couples who have been subject to single or recurrent spontaneous abortion, this program is a comprehensive approach to pursuing a healthy conception and pregnancy. For healthy fertile couples who complete this thorough regimen, the rewards are great, too.

When I recounted the success stories emanating from the British research, my friend, Judy S. was enthusiastic about the idea. "Most of us are fully prepared to give up unhealthy eating habits with the onset of pregnancy; but it makes sense to me to pave the way ahead of time," she agreed.

The goals, in any case, are the same: normal, healthy pregnancies and healthy full term babies.

Mindy Bailin writes frequently about parenting, health, family and education issues. She is the author of Kids Around New York City, a new Fodor's Travel Guide published by Random House.