How to nourish yourself post-partum and beyond
Post-partum nutrition and health is not talked about much. But this is where extra care needs to be taken since recovery is critical for the future health of a woman (especially if having more children is planned). Pregnancy is incredibly nutrient demanding and if women go into pregnancy already nutrient deficient that may lead to various health issues after birth that could have been avoided.
Pregnancy and birth get all the front covers and, no wonder, this is an opportunity for selling stuff. But once we get through pregnancy and birth, most women stop caring for themselves and the focus is on the baby and getting back to ‘normality’ again. However, a woman’s body has changed again, her internal rhythm goes up and down and her stamina and strength get tested as never before. You know that expression about putting on your own oxygen mask first? Well, this is one time that this is true.
Many health issues can be directly linked to pregnancy and birth, not only the typical ‘baby weight’ being hard to shake and what we mostly read about in women’s magazines. Many women that I see in clinic have health issues that, once we have a conversation, remember starting after giving birth and the post-partum period several years earlier, and that is mainly down to depleting themselves and their nutrient stores. Many of us have had a busy job right up until giving birth and, often, we decide to do some big renovations during pregnancy.
So when the baby finally arrives, we all find it very hard to slow down because we are simply not used to that rhythm at all. The focus is always on doing and just being. But having some simple food strategies in place, things don’t have to be tricky and when we know better, we do better for ourselves.
The most common nutritional deficiency in women before conception is zinc and magnesium. Low zinc can affect our mental health and years of hormonal contraceptive use before pregnancy can increase mineral deficiencies which can contribute to the extremely high incidence of women suffering from post-depression – typically affecting between 8- 15%. Animals eat their placenta; women, typically, do not. "Therefore this excellent source of zinc, copper, iron and essential fatty acids is not utilised for lactation when the need for a high zinc intake is the greatest" (Patel, 2005). Not only linked to depression and low moods, deficiencies in zinc and magnesium can sometimes cause unexplained infertility and miscarriages. The body doesn’t store zinc so it has to be supplied consistently through the diet.
Good sources of zinc:
Animal foods are all very high in zinc – things like red meat, shellfish like prawns and mussels, eggs and dairy. Plant foods are moderately high in zinc so look for pumpkin seeds, nuts like almonds and legumes.
Good sources of magnesium:
- pumpkin seeds
- leafy green vegetables
Try making a mineral broth to sip on throughout the day. Use a combination of chard, kale, and greens, cover with water and simmer until soft. Discard the vegetables or pop them in soup, and drink the broth. Don’t forget to add a good sea salt as Ray Peat, Ph.D says that "getting enough sodium in the diet helps to retain magnesium".
The baby needs a huge amount of calcium in vitro and if the mother’s stores are low, they will even be lower after giving birth. Loss of bone mass is also common unless the woman has excellent stores of calcium before conception. This also includes the health of the teeth. Pregnancy and subsequent breastfeeding put huge demands on a woman’s calcium stores and it's a really key mineral to keep up.
Have you heard the expression ‘one tooth for every child’? This refers to how common it is to report cavities and other health problems in the years following the birth of a child . So for each child you don’t replenish your calcium stores, the less chance you have of building strong bones and that, as a lot of us know, is a problem in old age with osteoporosis.
Good sources of calcium:
If you can, find organic unhomogenised milk as it’s higher in nutrients. Cheese is another great source. Look out for unpasteurised cheese like Comte and parmesan. Unpasteurised cheese has not been heat treated so is therefore high in nutrients and good bacteria that support your gut health. Gouda is also very high in vitamin K2 which is essential for calcium metabolism. Yoghurt, kefir and cottage cheese are also great.
Staples to keep in your fridge
Vegan sources of calcium are dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, foods made from soybeans such as tofu, tempeh and natto. Also, beans, lentils, Brazil nuts and some seeds like sesame (especially if it’s made into tahini).
The furnace of the body – your thyroid
Less known but not at all uncommon is the frequency of post-partum thyroiditis – the development of hypothyroidism following pregnancy and birth. Having low thyroid function can result in hair loss, feeling cold, sluggishness, low energy, digestive issues like constipation, dry skin, and depression. The thyroid, a butterfly gland that sits low on the front of the neck, regulates our metabolic rate and is associated with changes in body weight and energy levels.
Hands up who felt exhausted, lost hair and struggled to lose weight post-pregnancy? For most women who develop postpartum thyroiditis, thyroid function returns to normal within 12 to 18 months of the start of symptoms. This is if they nourish themselves adequately and it also depends if they went into pregnancy strong and healthy. However, some women who experience postpartum thyroiditis develop permanent complications if they don’t get adequate nutrients, have an underlying immune condition or if they carry on feeling stressed and sleep-deprived .
Nourishing yourself post-pregnancy with the right foods and drinks will make the recovery process easier and put you on the right path to being a strong parent right away. The first six months of post-pregnancy is not called the fourth trimester for nothing as it’s so closely linked to birth. 'The Fourth Trimester' is also the name of an excellent book by Kimberly Ann Johnson, which I recommend reading.
I love showing women how to re-build their energy, enrich their breastmilk, balance their hormones and moods, and support the digestive tract while nourishing themselves throughout this precious time of their life and supporting their health beyond the six months after. It can make all the difference now, in six months or six years. If you'd like to find out more, get in touch to see how I can help you.
-  Operative delivery and postnatal depression: a cohort study, BMJ, (Published 14 April 2005), R Patel.
-  Calcium Metabolism during Pregnancy and Lactation, Christopher S Kovacs, MD
Faculty of Medicine – Endocrinology, Health Sciences Centre, Memorial University
of Newfoundland (Last update: March 10, 2015)
-  Postpartum Thyroiditis: Not Just a Worn-Out Mom, Pereira and Brown (2008), The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 4(3):175-182.