(If you're not in the pregnancy stage of life, I still believe you'll find this a very interesting article. Please share it with someone who can benefit, too. Thanks!)
If there is any time in a woman's life when she cares the most about nutrition, it is during the time encompassing pregnancy. The woman's body needs to be a haven for conception and for a healthy baby to grow. Both an unborn and nursing baby demand a hefty supply nutrients for its rapid rate of growth and development. The mother also needs nutrients to deal with the huge changes happening to her body. And, both parents need to be nourished in order to handle stresses and be the best parents they can be.
If you missed Part 1 of my pregnancy article, it discusses the important topics including:
In this portion of my nourished, holistic pregnancy article, I detail the specific nutrients that are vital to a healthy pregnancy and avoiding harmful toxic substances. Read on...
Specific Nutrient Demands during Pregnancy
Proteins Proteins form the basic building blocks of the human body’s cells and tissues. Therefore, the development of the baby’s body and brain are highly dependent on the protein the mother eats. The important hormones and antibodies produced during pregnancy are also built from proteins. (Antibodies from the mother strengthen the baby’s immune system.) Protein also fuels the growth of the uterus.
Protein requirements approximately double over the course of the pregnancy. The need is about 80-100 grams a day. The amount is increased to that level over time, trimester by trimester. It’s important to have high quality protein, including organic sources of poultry, fish, eggs, and meat. Pregnant women who are vegetarian or vegan must plan their meals very carefully to ensure adequate intake of all the eight essential amino acids from combined plant-based proteins. Dried beans and lentils are high in proteins. Soy is also high in protein, but it is my personal opinion that soy should be strenuously avoided due to its estrogenic effects and its high incidence of genetic modification.
Fiber Fiber from plants, especially vegetables and fruits, is very beneficial to the bowel and the natural elimination and detoxification processes. It assures healthy, regular bowel movements, corrects bacterial populations in the gut, and helps move bacteria through the gastrointestinal tract. Fiber is also a great balance to all the protein eaten, because it helps it move through the digestive tract. The vegetables and fruits also contain the mineral and vitamin co-factors that are necessary for the protein to be properly utilized by the body. Half the food in every meal should be from vegetables and fruits.
Essential Fatty Acids Dietary fat is an important source of energy during pregnancy. Fats are needed for the body to be able to access the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, plus the trace elements. In addition, the essential fatty acids are vital to the normal development of the baby’s nervous system, in fact, 70% of all the fatty acids go to the brain. The baby’s spinal cord begins to develop in the third week of pregnancy, so essential fatty acids are vital from the very beginning. Fatty acids also make up the immune system, the adrenal and sex hormones, and the cell walls in both the baby’s and mother’s bodies. If a mother and infant are deficient in fatty acids, the child’s nervous system and immune system may never fully develop, which can cause a lifetime of emotional, learning, and immune system disorders.
Women should eat fish, which are rich in essential fatty acids, several times per week and/or take omega-3- rich oils such as fish oil, wheat germ oil, hemp seed oil, or flaxseed oil. It is imperative that fish containing high levels of mercury or other environmental toxins be avoided. Those contaminants can be passed on to the baby. Wild-caught, deep-sea fish are best (not farmed), and those known to be lower in mercury include salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel. When supplementing, one tablespoon of oil in the early part of pregnancy is good, and two to three tablespoons in later trimesters. Fish oil capsules are an option for those adverse to the taste.
Salt Most diets contain plenty of salt, but the quality of salt is of high importance. Salt should be unrefined, not heated, treated, or bleached, and as direct from the earth as possible in order to retain the natural minerals. Refined and processed foods should be avoided because they are often high in poor quality salt. Salt is essential, especially during pregnancy because it is needed to maintain the extra volume of blood that the woman produces, so she can then supply plenty of blood to the placenta. It also helps prevent dehydration and or any shock from blood loss during the birth. (Salt exceptions include cases where the mother has heart or kidney complications.) Salt intake should be balanced with adequate amounts of potassium, which is rich in whole food sources.
Calcium & Magnesium Calcium is important for a healthy pregnancy and intake should increase by 50%. This includes the total of dietary and supplemental sources. Similar to protein, the amounts added progressively increase trimester after trimester. Approximate daily intakes are 1000mg in the first trimester, 1200mg in the second, and 1600mg in the third. If calcium intake is lacking, the baby will “steal” it from the bones or teeth of the mother. Some whole food sources of calcium include canned salmon and sardines, figs, bok choy, blackstrap molasses, kale, almonds, oranges, turnip and collard greens, sesame seeds, and seaweed. Substances that rob the body of calcium should also be avoided; they include caffeine, carbonated soda, sugar, pasteurized dairy products, excessive protein, and excessive salt. Magnesium must be balanced with calcium in a ratio of 1.5:1 (Calcium:Magnesium). For example, if a woman is taking 1200mg calcium, she should pair it with 900 mg magnesium.
Iron Needs for iron increase substantially during pregnancy. This is because the mother is generating much more blood and has increased circulation throughout the body and the placenta. The recommended range is 40-80 milligrams per day; including the total from supplement and food sources, such dark leafy greens and red meats, especially liver (preferably organic). Iron from meat (heme iron) is much more bioavailable than iron from plant sources. Many pregnant women find it difficult to meet their recommended iron intake and find it necessary to supplement, especially during the second and third trimesters, when the iron requirements are the greatest. Mothers should follow up with routine iron/ferritin panels during pregnancy to know whether they are iron deficient and/or anemic.
Folate This nutrient is of utmost importance, especially pre-pregnancy and at the beginning of a pregnancy. Folate plays a role in cell division, which is critical to development of body tissues, especially of the nervous system. It prevents neural tube defects from forming in the baby’s spinal cord and brain during the first trimester. 400 micrograms per day is the minimum dosage for any woman capable of becoming pregnant. The RDA is 600mcg; 800 mcg is recommended by Hawthorn University, and some experts suggest dosages as high as 1200 micrograms. Some foods are fortified with folate, and it can also be obtained through naturally folate-rich foods including darky leafy green vegetables, lentils, and orange juice. Folate also helps stimulate the appetite, which is especially helpful in the first trimester, when it may decline.
There is a difference between folate and folic acid supplements. According to Chris Kresser, folic acid refers to the oxidized synthetic compound used in dietary supplements and food fortification, whereas folate refers to the various tetrahydrofolate derivatives naturally found in food. He recommends taking folate (not folic acid) supplements, specifically the form of folate that can enter the main folate metabolic cycle, and that lists “5-methyltetrahydrofolate” or “5-MTHF” on the product label. There also are risks with supplementing with too much synthetic folic acid, including cancer, B12 deficiency, and cognitive impairment.
Genetic mutations involving the enzyme Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) are known to also cause neural tube defects and other mid-line abnormalities, such as cleft palate. Fortunately, it is now possible and practical to simply test the blood for the presence of mutations in the gene coding for this important enzyme. It is unknown whether it is the MTHFR mutation in the mother or in the developing child that determines the congenital defects. It is certainly possible that both mutations play a role.
Supplementing with folate and other medical interventions may be necessary when the gene is present. For more information, see the article written by Bianca Garilli, ND, MTHFR Mutation: A Missing Piece in the Chronic Disease Puzzle.
I also encourage you to read my post, Hoping to Get Pregnant? Why MTHFR and Folate are SO Important. It's a treasure of knowledge!
Toxins Both Parents Should Avoid
Teratogens are a broad group of chemical agents that negatively affect the normal course of cell growth and development of an unborn child. They include chemicals, drugs, infections, and radiation. Even nutrients can be teratogens if taken in excess. Most pregnancies result in the birth of a healthy baby, yet 3-4% percent per year are born with abnormalities. Teratogens are the cause of approximately 4-5% of birth defects, which are often apparent at birth, but may not be detected until later. Approximately 60% of birth defects have no known cause.
Alcohol This is one of the most familiar teratogens. Alcohol should be avoided before and during pregnancy. Even in small amounts, alcohol can be harmful to the unborn child, especially in the sensitive periods of development. It can affect developmental retardation, produce hyperactivity, cause heart murmurs and other heart problems, and other malformations, most notably the cleft palate. Women who consume alcohol while pregnant are at increased risk of having a baby born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which includes physical deformities including a small head circumference and unusual facial characteristics. These children often have learning and behavior problems. Completely abstaining from alcohol while pregnant is advised.
Caffeine Research studies show that caffeine, which is a stimulant, can have a significant impact on fertility. It also has an impact during pregnancy by lowering a baby’s birth weight and slowing the overall growth rate.
Cigarette Smoke The nicotine in cigarettes should be avoided, whether first- or secondhand. There are actually over 200 different chemicals in cigarette smoke, and small amounts can alter DNA and be passed on genetically. Men, too, should avoid cigarette smoke, because it increases the risk of damage or mutation to their sperm. Smoking in women can have an impact on their reproductive organs, could cause endometriosis, fertility issues, and early menopause. Smoking while pregnant causes a reduction in the availability of oxygen in the blood, which can affect the baby’s growth. The chemicals from cigarette smoke are passed through the placenta to the unborn child. This can significantly increase the risk of having a preterm delivery, a low birth weight baby, premature detachment of the placenta, and miscarriage.
Recreational Drugs The impact of drugs on an unborn child is similar to cigarette smoking, but can be even worse. Marijuana is also highly discouraged. Cocaine wreaks havoc on the baby’s nervous system. Babies born to drug addicted mothers are born as drug addicts themselves and suffer horrific, stressful withdrawal symptoms.
Certain Over-the-Counter & Prescription Medications
Substances that are safe for adults may not be safe for a growing unborn child. All over-the-counter medications and prescription medications should be cleared with a physician before use while pregnant. For example, aspirin taken during the first half of a pregnancy has been correlated with below average IQ scores and slower growth rates.
Certain Herbs There are many herbs that are contra-indicated during pregnancy because they may cause blood to flow to the pelvic region, cause uterine contractions, or trigger miscarriage. These include Angelica, Motherwort, Pennyroyal Leaf, Shepherd's Purse, Yarrow, Autumn Crocus, Juniper, Poke Root, Sage, Wormwood, any of the berberine herbs, Goldenseal, Barberry, Oregon Grape Root, Cascara Sagrada, and Senna.
Xenoestrogens The prefix xeno- means “alien” or “strange”. They commonly are found in plastics; very often in food uses such as plastic wrap and to-go containers. The softer the plastic, and if it is heated, the faster it will break down and leach xenoestrogens into our food, environment, air, and bodies. They affect hormones and are known to lower sperm counts in men. Zinc is important to combat the effects of xenoestrogens in men and for having healthy sperm. Zinc levels are often low in men who eat the standard American diet.
Emotional Toxins Stress can greatly impact fertility and hormone regulation. Mental negativity, depression, or a high-stress lifestyle is unhealthy for everyone, and it puts the body in a greater demand for nutrients. That’s because the stress response burns up B vitamins, vitamin C, and all the important antioxidants. Stress can wear a person down quickly, especially an expectant mother. Stress triggers the adrenal glands to pump adrenaline through the bloodstream, and one’s emotions are literally coursing through their veins, including to the unborn baby.
The time periods before, during, and after pregnancy are very important in the lives of the mother, father, and baby. It is crucial for the wellbeing of both parents and the baby to receive the best possible medical care and to understand the importance of nutrition and its impact on health and development. A natural, whole food diet, rich in vital nutrients, is what is required to help ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby. It is important to engage in healthy lifestyle practices and to avoid harmful toxins. This is also true during the period of breastfeeding and, ideally, for a lifetime of good health.
(If you haven't yet, please read Part 1 of my holistic pregnancy article for more important information about nutrition during pregnancy. )
Also see my post on feeding your baby whole foods to start a lifetime of good food habits: Introducing Your Baby to Healthy Whole Foods.
Jenny Yelle, MHNE Holistic Wellness Educator
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