Pregnancy Nutrition: before, during, and after the baby
Nutritional Guidelines For Pregnancy
Recent research has discovered the nutrient environment of a growing fetus and baby significantly impacts genetic expression. Overall health and risk of disease are in part dependent on the mother’s health and nutrient intake before, during, and after pregnancy. Just as nutrition is important to growing kids and adults, so to is it critical for the first weeks, months, and years of development.
Even before trying to conceive, both the mother’s and father’s health are vitally important. The growing baby is first in line for all necessary nutrients and will deplete the mother if she is not well nourished before becoming pregnant. The father must also be in good health for maximal fertility as well as to support the mother and child. At least 6 months to a year before planning to conceive, it is crucial for the parents to achieve optimal health to ensure the child’s health and strength as well. Both the man and woman need to have adequate folic acid and zinc intakes because these nutrients are essential to increase fertility and begin detoxifying the body. When thinking about having children, the best ways to prepare your homes and bodies are to:
- Incorporate nutrient dense, whole foods such as legumes, meats, eggs, both saturated and unsaturated fats, vegetables, and fruits. These whole foods will provide a diverse range of nutrients that are all influential in the baby’s growth and development.
- Eliminate toxic chemical exposure by eating organic foods and replacing household and cosmetic products with natural ones. Eating more fiber will also establish healthy bowel movements and a balanced gut microbiome, which both aid in detoxification and health promotion.
- Actively work to minimize stress. Reducing your stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, will allow the parasympathetic nervous system to rest, digest, and utilize nutrients to promote the healthy growth of the baby.
The health of the mother is one of the most important factors in determining the health of the baby throughout its life. The first 6 weeks of the pregnancy are of particular importance. Nutrient deprivation during gestation can severely impact the long-term health of the growing baby and it’s mother. Establishing the placenta is a complex process that requires the effective use and production of glucose, protein, fatty acids, and oxygen. Glucose is the primary energy source for the growing baby. Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR) occurs if the mother does not provide sufficient levels of all essential nutrients necessary for her child, resulting in insufficient growth and development.
With IUGR, a limited supply of glucose will result in a breakdown of protein since vital organs such as the brain, which requires a large amount of glucose, will instead use protein-derived ketones as an energy source. This process deprives skeletal muscles and abdominal viscera of the protein they need to be strong during the child’s adult life. Moreover, the deprivation the growing baby experienced would alter their metabolism. This can lead to a maladaptive metabolic system that predisposes the child to obesity and diabetes.
The health of the mother, her nutrient intake, and exposure to environmental toxins lead to altered gene expression within cells. Cells “turn on” certain genes and “turn off” others, depending on the nutrient composition and functionality of all cellular communication. Gene expression is modified by altering the chromatin structure of the DNA, which in turn moderates the gene’s protein generation to be more or less frequent. Chemical modifications of the DNA occur when proteins add methyl or acetyl groups to DNA or their supporting proteins, histones. Adding these groups changes the chromatin structure, either facilitating or inhibiting the gene’s expression. For example, the micronutrient folate is needed for DNA methylation. A growing baby that doesn’t receive enough folate, may have neural tube defects due to the irregularity of the gene expression for DNA methylation.
Throughout the Pregnancy:
It is important to focus on several nutrients to ensure both your and your baby’s health, including calories, protein and fats. To optimize the health of your child, you need to optimize your health first. It is critical to meet your requirements for all nutrients. However, there are a few that are particularly important.
Calories: Although the pregnant mother is “eating for two,” it is important to remember that the growing baby is still quite small and does not need as many calories as you may think. During the first trimester it is recommended that you consume an additional 100-300 calories each day. During the second and third trimesters aim to consume about 450-500 calories more than you would need if you were not pregnant.
Protein: Requirements begin to increase as your baby grows larger. Women in their second and third trimester need 1.1g/kg each day (about a 25 gram increase compared to recommendations for non pregnant women).
Vitamin D: This vitamin is necessary to increase intestinal absorption of calcium, maintain the mother’s bone mineralization, and to avoid hyperparathyroidism (which can manifest as low calcium absorption and retention, high phosphate levels, osteoporosis, and kidney stones). The sun, cod liver oil, and sublingual liquid vitamin D supplementation are the best sources of vitamin D.
Iron: Your needs for iron are increased during pregnancy. A minimum of 27mg each day is recommended. If a mother has iron-deficiency anemia, both her and her infant will suffer adverse effects such as low maternal weight gain and hypothyroidism, as well as a low birth weight for the infant. Iron will allow for the flow of oxygen to increase in the mother’s body and the placenta.
Folate: This micronutrient is essential for both placental and fetal growth. Folate is a coenzyme for many metabolic processes and critical to the proper development of the neural tube. A woman planning to conceive should begin supplementing with 400-1000 mcg daily at least 1 month before pregnancy. This recommendation continues throughout pregnancy and during breastfeeding. Spinach, green vegetables, citrus fruits, and liver are excellent sources of folate. Check to see if your medications disrupt folic acid absorption.
Essential Fatty Acids: Linoleic (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic (omega-3) fatty acids are critical for all humans because of the body’s inability to produce them. These essential fatty acids are precursors to many other fatty acids that are all very important to healthy growth and development of the central nervous system. 1-3 tablespoons of an omega oil supplement such as cod liver oil, flax, or hemp seed, will ensure healthy development of the child and support the mother.
Vitamin C and bioflavonoids: These nutrients can be very beneficial to protecting the health of the mother and baby. Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that work to protect both veins and capillaries, which are particularly stressed in a mother who is carrying about an extra 30lbs. However, you must be careful with high vitamin C supplementation, as the newborn baby can go through withdrawals and develop scurvy if the high consumption does not slowly decline in the weeks before birth. When increasing vitamin C intake, it is important to increase bioflavonoid intake in a 3:1 ratio (C to bioflavonoids). Take up to 8 grams of vitamin C.
Calcium: Dietary calcium requirements remain the same as in nonpregnancy because calcium absorption naturally increases during pregnancy. 1200mg/day is recommended for women above 18 years. Low dietary intake of calcium may be a major cause of pregnancy-induced hypertension and eclampsia. Calcium supplementation can protect you and your child from lead toxicity. Lead can cause neurologic damage, kidney damage, and reproductive toxicity. Moreover, the growing baby is rapidly producing more and more bone, so calcium, vitamin k, potassium, and magnesium are also important to include in your diet.
Magnesium: If you are supplementing with 1200mg calcium, a 900mg magnesium regimen will be beneficial. The 1.5 ratio of calcium to magnesium will ensure proper electrolyte balance, pH regulation, and proper absorption of calcium.
After the baby
Breastfeeding helps the baby defend itself from infections, especially those of the digestive, respiratory, and urinary systems. Mother’s milk contains antibodies to many diseases as well as live enzymes that work to strengthen the baby’s health. If the mother is in good health, the ideal amounts of all nutrients the baby needs will be provided in easily absorbable and digestible forms in the breast milk. Feeding your baby formulas that contain glucose, maltose, dextrose, soy, or cow milk will result in pathogenic bacteria infections, food allergies, impaired digestive function, and even skin problems and insomnia. The mother must continue supplementing her diet, especially with essential fatty acids, as these nutrients are critical for the accelerated growth of the brain, nervous and immune systems.
What to avoid:
-Avoid processed foods, sugar, and trans fats.
-Do not consume caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or any illicit drugs.
-Do not microwave your food. Microwaves disrupt the natural chemical structures of the food, thereby introducing new and foreign molecules that the body cannot digest or that are toxic to the body.
-Eating dairy during pregnancy, especially if you are sensitive, may increase your child’s risk of asthma, ear and throat infections, and a dairy allergy.
-Avoid consuming more than 5,000 IU of PREFORMED Vitamin A, as it may be teratogenic (causing a birth defect by altering normal growth and development)
-Avoid eating fish as they contain high levels of mercury that can lead to birth defects and long term health problems in your child. Instead, obtain your essential fatty acids from properly manufactured cod liver oil or flax seed supplementation.
Beneficial herbs to include:
-Teas: citrus peel, ginger, lemon balm, linden flower, and rosehip.
-Burdock root tea: very nutritious and soothing
-Chamomile flower tea: soothing and relaxing, helps manage stress and relieve tension. High in calcium. Pairs well with ginger and lemon balm.
-Lemon balm: calming and relaxing, aids digestion, releases gas and bloating, good for the nervous system.
-Dandelion greens and root: high quality vitamin A, calcium, and iron. It will facilitate digestion, stimulate bile, and will modestly promote bowel movements.
-Nettle leaf: high in iron, helps combat fatigue, anti-inflammatory
-Red raspberry leaf: strengthens and tones uterine muscles, rich in chelated iron (easily absorbed), stimulates the flow of breast milk, and facilitates the mother’s post-birth recovery.
Herbs to take during the last few days of pregnancy to stimulate the uterus. Consult a midwife, herbalist, ND, or other health professional before taking these herbs:
-Black and Blue Cohosh
-Sheperd’s Purse and Yarrow (anti-hemorrhaging)
Herbs contraindicated in pregnancy:
There are many herbs contraindicated in pregnancy. Here are a few: Angelica, Autumn Cocus, Juniper, Poke Root, Sage, Wormwood, Goldenseal, Barberry, Oregon Grape Root, and Licorice (which has estrogenic properties that can disrupt your or your baby’s hormone balance)
1. Kohlstadt, I. (2009). Food and nutrients in disease management. (pp. 669-681). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
2. McGuire, M., & Beerman, K. (2011). Nutritional sciences. (2 ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth College Learning.