We all know how important nutrition is during conception, pregnancy and postpartum, but did you know why certain nutrients are really important for pregnancy and new mums? Here is some information on nutrients you should be trying to get in your diet during your child-bearing years.
Blood volume increases about 50% during pregnancy, for which iron is crucial. Anaemia is therefore quite common in expectant mothers, and although maternal iron requirements decline after birth, iron stores take longer to restore postpartum. Anaemia during pregnancy can therefore be an indicator for postpartum anaemia, which can have long term consequences to the mother including fatigue, altered cognition and postpartum depression (ref). Low iron levels have also been linked to hair loss.
Vitamin D is an essential hormone for bone health, immunity and hormonal balance. As it is synthesised in the skin through sunlight exposure, dietary requirements are higher when sunlight exposure is inadequate.Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets in children (especially if paired with no sun exposure).
There is an increased demand for Vitamin D during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and Vitamin D insufficiency can be common during pregnancy. There have been studies linking Vitamin D deficiency to antenatal and postnatal depression (ref).
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and essential for immune health. It is a cofactor in collagen, bone and tooth formation. It also strengthens blood vessel walls and increases the utilisation of iron in the body.
As Vitamin C aids in wound healing, it is an important postpartum nutrient. There is an increased need for Vitamin C in lactation and during periods of stress (which postpartum often can be!).
Our bodies cannot produce or store Vitamin C, so an adequate daily amount of this vitamin through diet and supplementation is important for optimal health.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin has an antioxidant function as well as being an essential nutrient for energy production. In pregnancy, it helps with baby’s bone, muscle and nerve development. Low concentrations of maternal B2 levels will result in lower concentrations of riboflavin in breast-milk (ref).
Moderate consumption of riboflavin may be protective against postpartum depression. (ref)
Riboflavin is mainly found in animal foods (meat and fish,milk, liver, eggs) and green vegetables and legumes. It is easily destroyed by light (e.g. milk in clear glass bottle).
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are called ‘essential’ as they can only be obtained through diet. DHA in particular is an essential nutrient during pregnancy and lactation to aid the neural and eye development of the fetus. Pregnant and postpartum women have an increased need for essential fatty acids, and are particularly at risk of losing DHA from brain tissue, as DHA is passed on to the fetus in-utero and via breast milk as an infant. They can easily become deficient without an adequate diet. Low levels of DHA has also been linked to postnatal depression (ref).
Folate aids in protein metabolism and promotes red blood cell formation. It is a very important nutrient in pregnancy as adequate levels before conception lower the risk of neural tube birth defects (such as spina-bifida) in babies. Folate may become depleted during breastfeeding, so ensuring adequate maternal Folate levels postpartum will help with future conception and pregnancies.
Vitamin B12 is a co-factor for the production of DNA, as is an essential nutrient for the production of red blood cells. It helps maintain nervous system health and deficiencies can lead to irreversible neurological disorders.
Using gas and air (nitrous oxide) during labour can oxidise B12 and cause a deficiency in the mother.
This, in addition to the fact that most of mum’s B12 goes to the baby first, can mean that postpartum women may already be B12 deficient after giving birth. B12 deficiencies have been linked to depression/ postpartum depression.
B12 is only found in foods of animal origin so it’s even more important to supplement with this nutrient if following a plant-based (i.e. vegan/vegetarian) diet (ref).
Calcium is well known for its role in maintaining bone health, and is very important during pregnancy for fetal bone health but also to ensure the mother’s bone health is not compromised by depleted calcium levels (ref).
It is also a vital component in mother’s milk, and inadequate calcium levels in the mother can affect the amount of milk she produces. There is an increased need of calcium during lactation.
Calcium works with magnesium to maintain healthy nerves and strong muscles. It is a natural antidepressant as well as promoting healthy neural activity in the brain. Calcium deficiency can manifest as fatigue, irritability and sleeping difficulties. It can also lead to heart rhythm problems, mental confusion and depression.
Protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of your (and your baby’s) cells. It is essential for growth, repair and maintenance of cells. Adequate protein consumption during pregnancy has been shown to help with healthier birth weights, quicker postpartum recovery and help returning to pre-pregnancy weight. If breastfeeding, adequate protein in breastmilk sustains the baby’s rapid growth in his first year of life.
Most new mothers will not be eating regular meals so the inclusion of a plant based protein powder can help new mothers meet their protein requirements as well as stabilising their blood glucose. Pea protein contains no gluten, dairy or soy so is hypoallergenic and easier to digest. It contains high levels of l-arginine, a muscle building amino acid.
Magnesium works with calcium to maintain healthy nerves, muscles and rhythmic heartbeat. It is an essential nutrient for energy production so is essential when experiencing fatigue as a new mother. It is a natural antidepressant and aids relaxation and sleep.
It can also aid with constipation, a common pregnancy and postpartum issue.
In pregnancy, magnesium (amongst other nutrients) are absorbed by the fetus and placenta, which can lead to magnesium deficiency in the mother. Lactation also depletes mother’s magnesium stores – these two factors could contribute to postpartum depression (ref).
Magnesium is mostly found in plant sources such as dark leafy green vegetables,legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains, so many people eating a Western or erratic diet could be deficient in magnesium.
Zinc is an essential nutrient for sperm formation, cell growth and replication, bone formation, skin integrity as well as carbohydrate metabolism and basal metabolic rate.
Zinc is important for immune system function and development of the baby’s brain, so if the mother is not getting enough in pregnancy she may become deficient.
Low zinc levels have been linked to postpartum depression. Zinc is also an essential nutrient for energy and integrity of the gut lining (ref).
Selenium, a powerful antioxidant, is a crucial mineral for thyroid health as it helps convert T4 to the active form of the thyroid hormone T3. Many women suffer with undiagnosed postpartum thyroiditis as the symptoms can be chalked up to being a new parent (fatigue, inability to lose weight, hair loss, low mood). Selenium supplementation has been shown to reduce the thyroid inflammatory activity and incidence in hypothyroidism in women with thyroid peroxidase antibodies (ref).
It has also been shown to improve mood and could prevent postpartum depression (ref).
The selenium concentration in foods depend on amount of the mineral in the soil. Due to European soils being selenium deficient, it is not uncommon for us to not have adequate amounts of this mineral in our diets. Selenium insufficiency can predispose individuals to viral infections and loss of immunocompetence.
This post originally appeared on the Vitimum website. I was asked to help develop the formulation for Vitimum Original to ensure it had a carefully balanced, comprehensive formulation of vitamins, minerals and protein, to help support the nutritional requirements of mothers and mothers to be.
Vitimum Original comes in powder form, which can be mixed into smoothies or made into protein balls. Each serving contains: 16 grams of Protein, Vitamin D, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, Iron, Vitamin C, Fish Oil, Folate, Calcium, Magnesium, Zinc and Selenium.
Vitimum is offering 10% discount to anyone reading this blog post – please enter the code FIGTREE at checkout to apply the discount.