Anna Field RN-BC, BSN, RD
The birth of a child is one of the most life-changing events a woman will ever experience. Words cannot describe the feeling of time standing still, dual explosions of gratitude and exhaustion, the joy of one job completed and the anticipation of what is yet to come. The beginning of a new chapter and new prioritization. A mother is born.
Pregnancy is one of the biggest, if not the biggest metabolic processes a body can go through. Creating and growing a little human inside your body for nine months requires vast amounts of energy, nutrients, and hormones. Nine months, or less if you give birth early (preemie moms are a whole different kind of superhero), is spent giving your reserves to your little one. A depleted nutritional status, the natural hormonal shift following birth, in combination with the adrenalin rise and subsequent fall accompanying the baby’s delivery, can contribute to exhaustion.
There are several ways to protect a new mother’s nutrition and hydration in the days and weeks following delivery so that she may recover from the major shift in her body.
Many women experience a shift in blood volume and fluid volume after delivery. Staying hydrated can prevent low blood pressures. The goal is to get at least 8-12 cups of water a day. This comes out to 64-96 ounces. Water is essential in transporting water-soluble vitamins to cells and transporting waste products out of the body. (1) Leaving a water bottle or glass of water in several rooms in the house is a great remember to sip throughout the day. Just as important, watch out for dehydrating beverages such as coffee, caffeinated teas, and alcohol.
Leave water bottles (or a glass of water) in several rooms as a reminder to sip
Mix a little bit of juice in with your water if you do not like the taste of plain water
Consume high water content foods such as homemade soups, fruit, or a smoothie
ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS (EFAs)
EFAs make up the membrane barriers to each cell in the body so that nutrients can enter and toxins can be filtered out. Consuming adequate essential fatty acids (EFAs) is paramount to cognitive function, a sturdy immune system, and emotional stability following childbirth. (2) During the pregnancy, a mother’s EFA reserves are directed to the growing baby, so rebuilding those reserves is necessary. (1) Our bodies do not make EFAs from other substances so we must get them from our diet or supplementation.
The three main omega-3 fatty acids are:
1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in avocados, seeds, nuts, olives, coconut oil
2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in fatty fish (anchovies, salmon, tuna) and algae
3. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fatty fish (anchovies, salmon, tuna) and algae
One way to make sure all EFA needs are met is to take a high-quality supplement, purchased from a health food store. (Before buying a supplement, always be sure to research the methods the company uses to test its products for purity) Natural fish oil is produced from the tissue of fatty fish and also contains vitamins A and D, fat-soluble vitamins that increase the absorption of minerals. (4) For vegans and vegetarians, try algae oil. The EPA and DHA in fish actually originate in the marine algae they eat, so consuming the algae oil itself drops the middle man or fish!
Have a ripe avocado with lunch or dinner
Try a fish you have never had before
Cook with coconut oil instead of vegetable oil
Drizzle olive oil on cooked veggies
VITAMINS & MINERALS - ZINC, CALCIUM, IRON, IODINE
The vitamins and minerals that are most easily depleted during pregnancy are those that are found in higher amounts in prenatal vitamin formulations. Zinc, calcium, iron, and iodine are at an increased requirement during all trimesters of pregnancy. (5)
Zinc is involved heavily in cell differentiation and replication. During periods of rapid growth such as late pregnancy, women are more vulnerable to zinc deficiency (5). To replenish zinc stores, consume meat, eggs, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. (6)
In the last trimester of pregnancy, 300 mg of calcium is transmitted daily to the baby. To maintain adequate calcium levels in the body after delivery, a mother can consume foods such as dark leafy greens, legumes, and fermented organic dairy products such as yogurt and kefir. (6)
British physician and pioneer researcher in the field of female hormones Katharina Dalton links low levels of iron during pregnancy and blood loss during birth to postpartum fatigue, exhaustion, and depression. (7) Iron is a mineral that plays a critical role in transporting oxygen to every tissue in our body. Symptoms of iron deficiency (anemia) include weakness, shortness of breath with ordinary activity, pale skin, and irregular heartbeats. Iron-rich foods to look for are red meat, liver, lentils, beans, dark leafy greens, and dried fruit. (5) When choosing to take an iron supplement, look for a non-constipating formulation, so you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
The need for iodine increases to more than 45% during pregnancy and a sufficient amount of iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones in the mother’s body. (6) Symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) are dry skin and hair, hair loss, weight gain, cold intolerance, and fatigue. To support a healthy thyroid gland, use iodized salt or sprinkle a pinch of kelp on your food instead. Sea kelp is a natural source of iodine and is rich in vitamins, minerals, and trace elements as well.
Consume red meat once or twice a week to replete iron and zinc stores
Have a whole fat greek yogurt for increased calcium
Make a fruit smoothie with one or two handfuls of spinach for a calcium boost
Try sea kelp to support a healthy thyroid
The hormones that regulate our blood sugar work in a feedback loop. We can use knowledge of this system to our advantage rather than let our blood glucose (sugar) become a victim of a vicious cycle of highs and lows. High sugar foods and refined carbohydrates increase blood glucose. Insulin is then released to enable the glucose to get into the cell so it can be used for energy metabolism. Insulin may work so effectively that the blood sugar drops rapidly, causing symptoms such as irritability, mood swings and exhaustion. (1) If this happens, a busy mother may then again reach for a carbohydrate-rich food or caffeine, causing the cycle to start again. Blood sugar can be stabilized by consuming frequent smaller meals with a protein and fat component. Quick and easy blood sugar-stabilizing mini-meals for a new mom could be sliced apples with almond butter, avocado toast, berries with whole greek yogurt, or pita bread with hummus.
In addition to keeping blood sugar stable, new moms can glean benefits from foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan. This amino acid is the precursor to serotonin in the body, the brain’s “feel-good chemical”. (8) Serotonin affects sleep, anger, carbohydrate cravings, and addictive behaviors. Salmon, poultry, eggs, spinach, seeds, and nuts are all excellent sources of tryptophan.
MAKING IT EASY
It is so important for new moms to take the fragile time during the weeks following childbirth to nurture and care for their physical bodies, as well as their mental and emotional health. Time taken to care for mother’s health and nutrition will always be time well spent.
Making a smoothie with several nutrient dense foods at the same time is a great way to get a blast of vitamins, minerals, proteins and healthy fats together.
Continue to take a multivitamin during the initial postpartum months.
Use spinach as an ingredient often - it is high in iron and calcium.
Consume small meals every 2-3 hours throughout the day to stabilize blood sugar.
Make fat a priority - enjoy snacks like avocado and nuts when busy.
1. Jacobson, H. (2007) Mother food: a breastfeeding diet guide with lactogenic foods and herbs. Rosalind Press.
2. Davis, B.C. & Kris Etherton, P.M. (2003). Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. American Journal Clinical Nutrition. 78 (3 Suppl):640S-646S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/78.3.640S.
3. Liao, Y., Xie, B., Zhang, H., He, Q., Guo, L., Subramaniapillai, M., Fan, B., Lu, C. & McIntyer, R.S. (2019). Efficacy of omega-3 PUFAs in depression: A meta-analysis. Translational Psychiatry. Aug 5;9(1):190. doi: 10.1038/s41398-019-0515-5.
4. National Institutes of Health (2018, November 21) Omega-3 fatty acids fact sheet for consumers. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
5. Escott-Stump, M. (2015) Nutrition and Diagnosis-Related Care. 8th edition. New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer.
6, Khayat, S., Fanai, H. & Ghanbarzeh, A. (2017) Minerals in pregnancy and lactation: a review article. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Sep, vol-11(9): QE01-QE05
7. Dalton, K. (1996) Depression after childbirth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
8. Scott, T. (2011) The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution. Oakland, CA. New Harbinger Publications,