Given that I’m now 24 weeks pregnant (yes, that’s me above, recently), I’ve had end-of-pregnancy and postpartum health on my mind a lot. In my last pregnancy, I did so great when I was pregnant (gained weight very steadily and not too much; no anxiety; good energy; etc.), but then did poorly afterward — anxiety came roaring back, I actually gained weight after the first couple of months, and had other issues. Part of this was due to the mold exposure in our home (and I’m hopeful that since we are away from it, things will be better automatically this time), but part was due to what I still didn’t know about nutrition.
I had noticed that in the early weeks postpartum, I craved milk, eggs, nuts, and butter heavily. So I set out to figure out why that might have been, and how to plan to eat well this time. I want to give myself and my baby the absolute healthiest start possible. Plus, I would like to make sure my hormones stay balanced and that I don’t have issues with postpartum anxiety this time. I am not a good mom when I am on edge all the time!
Plus, I know that a baby’s brain grows the most rapidly in the final three months of pregnancy and the first 6 months of life (continuing to be fairly rapid up until around age 2). I wanted to make sure that my diet was filled with foods that would promote optimal brain development. I really like to research what is optimal, in terms of health — not that it’ll ever make things “perfect” (there’s still a lot we can’t control) but at least I’m doing the best I can with the things I can control. I think it really helps.
Anyway, I spent an afternoon trying to answer a bunch of questions and reading several studies. What I learned was really interesting!
What Your Body — And Baby — Needs for Postpartum Health
I set out to answer several questions:
1. What nutrients does my body most need to keep my hormones balanced and prevent postpartum depression or anxiety?
2. What nutrients does my body most need to promote optimal brain development in my baby?
3. What foods are high in these nutrients?
4. How can I best add these foods to my diet?
There were more questions, that centered around particular nutrients — did they play a role, and if so, what was it. I spent hours reading about this (and it wasn’t my first time looking at this topic; I was interested in the newer information that has come out).
Interestingly, the answers to questions 1 and 2 were almost exactly the same!
The foods that make our babies healthy, make us healthy. And almost universally, we are not getting enough of them. If we were getting enough, we would all be better for it. This isn’t a prescription for perfection; that isn’t possible. But our experiences can be better when we are well-nourished.
What Nutrients are Important?
I looked at several different studies, and found a list of key nutrients:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA)
Not that other nutrients aren’t important, but these are kind of the “main” ones. They are the ones that are key to both a positive postpartum experience and optimal brain development in newborns. One study found that certain nutrients impact brain development in babies more than others, like protein, energy, certain fats, iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, vitamin A, choline, and folate. (source)
Also, another study showed that “…during the last trimester, the fetus accrues about 50 to 70 mg a day of 1 omega-3 fatty acid, DHA” and “Babies accrue DHA into the CNS up until about 18 months of age.” (source) Clearly, DHA is really critical to brain development!
So how do we get these important nutrients?
Let’s start with the bottom of the list — vitamin A, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. One key source of these nutrients is cod liver oil. Interestingly, I found many studies that specifically referenced cod liver oil and not other forms of these nutrients! Some moms are told it’s better to take separate supplements for DHA, vitamin D, etc. Women are often told to take fish oil (which is high in DHA but lacks vitamins A and D).
The studies I was looking at showed that cod liver oil, a balanced, whole food supplement of all these nutrients worked better than the separate supplements. I always think that whole food supplements work better because the balance of nutrients is correct. We’re not meant to take mega-doses of just one nutrient; we need that balance. Instead of trying to figure out what it should be (I know people who drive themselves crazy trying to figure out how much vitamin A to go with vitamin D or calcium to go with magnesium, and so on), why not just stick with whole foods supplements?
For example, one study linked cod liver oil (but not other isolated vitamin D supplements) with a reduced risk of type 1 diabetes in a baby’s first year of life. (source) (Another source on the reduced risk of type 1 diabetes due to cod liver oil.)
Additionally, cod liver oil during pregnancy is associated with a higher healthy birth weight (source), lower risk of allergic rhinitis in children (source), and even a higher IQ in children! (source) Another study shows that cod liver oil reduces the risk of upper respiratory infections in children. (source)
On the maternal side, cod liver oil was associated with increased breastmilk production (again, specifically cod liver oil and not other omega-3 supplements) of 5 – 10 mL doses per day. (source) Low omega-3 levels are associated with an increased risk of postpartum depression. (source)
That last point really interests me. I know I wasn’t always consistent with my cod liver oil at the end of pregnancy (some point to cod liver oil as a potential blood thinner and recommend against taking it in the final weeks of pregnancy as it could increase the risk of hemorrhage; I will likely not heed this advice this time around because I have always bled lightly) and in the first several weeks postpartum. In recent weeks, I have felt that it helped quite a bit in smoothing out the last of my anxiety, which did not go away during pregnancy this time. I’m very hopeful that it will help me maintain hormonal balance at a very volatile time, which I think is key to avoiding anxiety.
Also, I have found that avoiding sugar and healing gut damage with fermented foods and homemade soups was key for me. After a couple months being almost entirely sugar-free, I can now tolerate some, so I indulge for special occasions (but still keep it out, day to day). If you’re interested in trying to be sugar-free to heal, know that it does not last forever!
Cod liver oil is a pretty key supplement! I try to take Green Pastures’ fermented cod liver oil every night and will get stricter about remembering as I enter my third trimester and postpartum phase.
Other Important Nutrients
There are other important nutrients, of course. For example, I’ve talked a lot about magnesium. I use magnesium lotion every night. It turns out that magnesium is associated with a lower risk of asthma in babies! (source) It also helps me sleep, gets rid of leg cramps, and reduces morning sickness and anxiety. There are a whole host of reasons to keep up with magnesium during pregnancy.
And! Magnesium, along with copper, zinc, and iron deficiencies are all associated with postpartum depression (source). Another great reason not to forget your supplement. Iron deficiency is pretty common in pregnancy because of increased blood volume. I personally found that I was anemic at 28 weeks (when you have the lowest iron levels of your whole pregnancy) in my first two pregnancies when I avoided red meat. In my third and fourth, when I was eating grass-fed beef, I was not anemic at all. I expect I won’t be this time, either. Food for thought — literally!
Finally, selenium, an under-appreciated but pretty critical mineral, may reduce the risk of postpartum thyroid conditions. Selenium’s pretty key to thyroid health in general, actually.
Are you intrigued yet? Or thoroughly confused?
I found it kind of overwhelming too. So many important nutrients, and so many critical functions! The next question is, what do I eat to actually get all those nutrients?
I get it. I do. That’s why I created a chart, showing key foods that are high in 2 or more of these important nutrients. It’s a super simple, at-a-glance way to know what foods are healthiest for you at this time, and which you may need depending on what you may be deficient in (which a doctor could tell you from a blood or hair test). That chart is coming on Thursday, so don’t miss it.
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