Humans have a long history and connection to nature and the outdoors. That has changed significantly over the years, and today we spend close to 90% of our time indoors. Gardening is an activity you can enjoy that gets your outside and in nature, right in your backyard. While gardening has many benefits, when you are pregnant, there are also a few risks. Learn how to mitigate the risks to you and your baby while gardening. If you don’t have a garden or yard, you can still enjoy plants inside your home. As a bonus, plants are supposed to improve the air quality in your house. This article examines the evidence on this claim. Learn what hazards in your home diminish air quality and what you can do to improve it.
Article and Resources
Benefits of Gardening
There are a lot of benefits to being outside and gardening. This is an activity outdoors with fresh air, sunlight, and physical activity.
The Benefits of Sunlight
There are two significant benefits to getting outside in natural sunlight. The first is sunlight helps your body produce Vitamin D. The second benefit is that exposure to sunlight at specific points in the day can help set your circadian clock and optimize your hormone production for hormones like estrogen.
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin during pregnancy. This vitamin is sometimes referred to as a hormone because the activated forms of it are hormones. Vitamin D regulates immune function, cell growth, and neuromuscular function. One of the most essential things vitamin D does is help with the absorption of other vital nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate, and zinc. During pregnancy, this doesn’t only apply to you. It also applies to your baby. Vitamin D is even more critical to your baby as their bones are developing. An estimated 25-30 grams of calcium transfers to your baby’s skeleton by the time they are born. The majority of calcium transfers in the last trimester. The absorption of this calcium is dependent on adequate vitamin D.
An estimated 90% of our vitamin D comes from the sun. You cannot overdose on vitamin D from the sun, but you can get a sunburn. If you are out in the sun, you want to apply sunscreen often. If you have any concerns about chemicals in sunscreens, the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep website is an excellent resource for that. The EWG rates skin products based on the safety of their ingredients. Sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect your skin. You can also wear a hat to keep the sun off your face, wear long sleeves or pants to protect your skin, or choose to garden in the shade or under an umbrella.
There are some common skin issues during pregnancy, like melasma, that can get worse with exposure to the sun. Pregnancy is also a time in which your skin tends to be more sensitive to everything, including sun exposure.
Sunlight and Circadian Rhythms and Hormone Production
Being outside just a few minutes at three different points in the day can give you exposure to the blue light spectrum from the sun that can help to set your circadian clock and optimize hormone production. Ideally, the best times to do this are at sunrise, solar noon, and sunset. Being outside at dawn or within an hour or two of the sun coming up will signal to your body that it is time to wake up and start the day. Twenty minutes before the sun sets, you get the highest spike in blue light in a 24 period. That signals to the brain that blue light is going to diminish to zero, and you can start producing melatonin. Melatonin is the cornerstone of having optimal reproductive health. It is going to help you get better sleep, which in turn is going to allow for more optimal estrogen and prolactin secretion. For more information on how blue light affects you during pregnancy and when trying to conceive, check out the episode on blue light and pregnancy.
Anytime you are planning to be outside in warm weather, you should plan to avoid overheating. You can time your gardening early in the morning or in the evening when the temperature is cooler. Work in an area with shade and avoid getting too much sun. Drinking plenty of water will also help your body to stay cool and keep you hydrated in warmer weather. If you feel like you are getting too hot, please take a break and cool off.
Take it Easy on Your Body
Gardening can be backbreaking work. It could be helpful to break larger projects into smaller chunks. Perhaps instead of spending half of your Saturday weeding in your yard, you can spread it out in shorter periods over several days. As your pregnancy progresses, you may need to make modifications to get more comfortable or limit the amount of time you are spending in a particular position. Change positions often. If you are kneeling, you may want to use a pad to ease the pressure on your knees. Be careful lifting heavy objects and ask for help from your partner or another person if you need it. Listen to your body and pay attention to when you need to change what you are doing or take a break.
A significant risk of gardening while pregnant is possible exposure to toxoplasmosis. This is the name for the disease caused by the toxoplasma gondii parasite. This is extremely common, with estimates of over 40 million Americans infected with this parasite. Toxoplasma gondii lives in soil, and the primary hosts are cats because the parasite replicates in their intestines. The infectious organisms are in cat feces. This is why doctors advise that you do not clean a litter box during pregnancy. In addition to cat feces, you could be exposed to toxoplasmosis by eating raw or undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables, or from exposure to the soil that has the parasite. The risk is that a cat infected with the parasite uses your garden as a litter box and transfers the parasite to your soil.
For a healthy adult, toxoplasmosis isn’t usually a big deal. The risks change when you if you were to get infected just before getting pregnant or during your pregnancy. In pregnancy, toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects, including hearing loss, vision problems, and intellectual disabilities. When it is passed from a mother to her baby through the placenta, it is called congenital toxoplasmosis.
Immunity to Toxoplasmosis
The good news is that if you have ever been infected with toxoplasmosis before, you are now immune. Plus, your immunity also protects your baby. The only way to know this would be to get a blood test that looks for antibodies. Nearly a quarter of the adult population in the United States is estimated to be seropositive, which means that they have been exposed to the parasite and should be immune. In the United States, we do not routinely test for toxoplasma antibodies. In some countries where instances of infection are much higher, like France or Belgium, there are screening programs. If you aren’t sure how common toxoplasmosis is in the country you live in and whether your doctor or midwife recommends you get tested, please ask your care provider.
Limiting Your Risk
There are several things you can do to limit your risk of exposure to this parasite. If you have a cat, you can keep them indoors. This prevents them from eating prey that could have the parasite, then shedding the virus in your yard. If you have outdoor or stray cats in your neighborhood, it may be more challenging to keep them out of your yard or garden. Some plants, like lavender, are thought to keep cats away. The reviews on whether these are effective are mixed. It may take some trial and error to find what works if you are trying to keep neighborhood cats away.
Wearing Gloves and Washing Your Hands
When gardening, you should wear gloves while gardening or handling unwashed fruits or vegetables from your garden. When you are tending your garden or planting, you want to avoid touching your face. Always wash your hands thoroughly after working in your garden. If you are fortunate to enjoy fresh fruits, herbs, or vegetables from your garden, you also want to make sure to wash them before eating.
Another risk when gardening that you may have more control over is the use and exposure to pesticides. Ideally, you want to limit your exposure to chemicals as much as possible. In a perfect world, you have zero exposure to pesticides during your pregnancy. According to the CDC, exposure to pesticides could increase your chances of having a miscarriage, a baby with birth defects, or other problems. Pesticides are a particular concern if you live in an agricultural area or work with pesticides.
The first trimester the most sensitive for your baby’s development. If there was any trimester in which you should be especially careful about exposure to harmful chemicals, it is the first trimester. In the event you do not want to eliminate the use of pesticides in your yard or garden, you can ask someone else to apply them. You could ask your landscaping service or gardener to suspend the use of pesticides or limit their use temporarily. If you do use any chemicals, please follow instructions and use protective gear, like gloves, long clothing, and potentially a mask or respirator.
Pregnancy is a great time to cut some chemicals out of your life. If you typically use pesticides in your garden, finding other options now will also make that space safer for your little one when they are older and can explore outside. Some pesticides labeled as organic or natural may be a better option, but those labels do not necessarily mean they are 100% safe.
Talking to Your Doctor or Midwife
If you have any questions about the safety of gardening or exposure to toxoplasmosis or harmful chemicals, please bring up your questions with your doctor or midwife.
It is often a lot easier to take care of plants indoors. Inside, you have more control over the environment and little, if any, exposure to pests like insects or cats. If you do have a cat, you should not be at risk for toxoplasmosis when working with indoor potted plants, assuming they are not using your planters as a litter box.
Plants add some nature to your indoor space and are aesthetically pleasing. One study found that ornamental plants placed in hospital recovery rooms resulted in lower pain, anxiety, and fatigue in patients recovering from surgery. Assuming you don’t have any allergies to the plants in your home, they can brighten up your space.
House Plants and Air Quality
House plants are often advertised as an easy and inexpensive way to improve your indoor air quality. Let’s look at this from an evidence-based perspective and see if the research backs up this claim.
Air Quality Problems Indoors
You would think that the air in your home is perfectly safe to breathe. The problem is the air in your home may be contaminated with particulate matter and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Particulate matter is the particles in the air that are often hazardous. These particles include exhaust from cars, dust, pollen, or smoke, anything that generally contributes to air pollution. Particulate matter tends to be in greater concentrations outdoors and large cities. These particles can also be in your home from activities like cleaning, cooking, or heating. Dusting and cleaning floors often can help to reduce the number of particles floating around your home.
VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
VOCs, come from things like cleaning products, paints and solvents, car exhaust, and cigarette smoke. These toxins can also off-gas from synthetic materials such as rugs, furniture, or building materials. VOCs are mostly found indoors because the products in our homes and offices give off these compounds. To avoid VOCs, you need to pay close attention to the materials in the products and furnishings you purchase. The problem is that so many home improvement materials, furniture, and textiles often contain VOCs.
Sick Building Syndrome
There is a lot of documentation on the adverse health effects of building environments. Sick building syndrome describes a situation in which occupants of a building experience acute health- or comfort-related effects that seem to be linked directly to the time spent in the building. Sick building syndrome is primarily due to poor air quality, lack of sunlight, exposure to EMFs, and exposure to chemical contaminants.
Can Plants Improve Indoor Air Quality?
Before researching for this article, I assumed the answer to this question was yes. Let’s take a closer look at the evidence. Plants improving air quality is not a new concept. Some of the first research on this came from a 1989 study from NASA. The NASA scientists examined how plants could potentially improve air quality for space travel and colonization.
The Evidence on House Plants and Air Quality
There are a couple of different ways that plants can positively impact air quality. First, they can increase oxygen. The process of photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide and returns oxygen to the air. Secondly, plants metabolize some toxic chemicals and can incorporate toxicants, like heavy metals, into plant tissues, which can remove them from the environment. When looking at the science of how this works, it is a combination of the entire plant. The leaves, roots, soil, and even the microorganisms in the plant play a role.
There is a fair amount of research showing indoor plants have a positive impact on air quality. One example is this study that found plants to help reduce VOCs. The most comprehensive review I found is critical of the research showing that indoor plants improve air quality. Among the criticisms were that studies are measuring effects in small sealed chambers that do not account for airflow changes in-home or office environments. The most prominent way to remove VOCs from indoor spaces is by outdoor-to-indoor air exchange. That means that opening a window may be more effective at reducing VOCs in your home than a plant.
House Plants and Humidity
An additional benefit is that plants can increase the humidity indoors. As plants draw water from the roots into their leaves, some of that moisture evaporates into the air. This process is called transpiration. All plants add humidity to some extent, and plants with larger leaves tend to add more. You can think in terms of a rainforest plant that can lose a lot of water through big leaves, while a desert plant with small leaves wants to conserve as much water as possible. If you want to add plants to make the air in your home less dry, be aware that you can take this too far. It is possible to add so many plants that the humidity level in your home is too high. As long as you are not filling each room with plants to mimic a rainforest, you should be okay.
Are the Benefits Worth Buying Plants for Your Home?
Hopefully, the evidence in this article gives you the information to decide whether you want to add some plants to your home. If you don’t particularly want a plant, don’t feel like you need to go out and buy one. Plants can be positive and enjoyable, but they do require maintenance.
Considerations for Buying House Plants
One of the challenges in selecting a plant to improve air quality is that different plants are more or less efficient at removing impurities in the air. You can get thousands of lists online ranking houseplants for air quality. The majority of these base the rankings from the 1989 NASA study mentioned earlier.
One of the best resources for finding the right plants is to consult with a local nursery or garden center. The staff will be knowledgeable about the plants available and local climate conditions. You can also specify how much sunlight is in the room where you plan to put the plant and how much maintenance you are willing to commit to. Often nurseries and garden centers will have some warranties on their plants, and you can even return them if they are not thriving.
Plants and Your Baby
After you have your baby, you may need to rethink the placement of pots once your little one is crawling. A planter of dirt is an excellent play area to make a huge mess. If you put potted plants on a shelf or a piece of furniture, you want to be sure it is not at risk of falling and injuring your little one. Typically, babies do not start crawling until nine months or later, and your plants are safe until then.
Don’t Overthink Indoor Air Quality
It is so easy to start overthinking the air quality in your home and go down the rabbit hole of panicking about everything in your house that could be off-gassing toxins. Pregnancy is an excellent excuse to clean up your life in a lot of ways. The key is to stack some easy small things, that can eventually lead to more significant changes in your environment. Some of the biggest offenders to healthy air quality indoors are candles, air fresheners, and incense. One study showed a correlation between the use of incense in the home to VOCs detected in urine. In the broad scheme of things, the fewer chemicals you bring into your home, the better. Start with small, easy things. Please do not drive yourself crazy, trying to overhaul your entire house.
Remember, one of the best and easiest things you can do to reduce VOCs in your home is to open a window and get fresh air in. Depending on the climate where you live, this may not be an option during certain parts of the year or times of the day. Even opening a window for a few minutes can have a significant impact on the air exchange in your home. As does opening and closing the front door, which you already do multiple times per day.
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