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Internationally Acclaimed Nutritional Biochemist, Author & Speaker

How to support your body nutritionally after birth

Physically, the process of growing a baby exacts a significant toll and this is not discussed enough. It can be physically and emotionally challenging to get back on your feet after a baby arrives, a situation made more difficult if there are additional young ones at home and if adequate support isn’t in place. Hormonally, nutritionally and emotionally, things can take time to restore and rebalance.

The term ‘post-natal depletion’ was coined by family practitioner Dr Oscar Serrallach, who works in Northern NSW. Post-natal depletion (not to be confused with post-natal depression) refers to the physical and emotional depletion that pregnancy and lactation can create if the right supports — both nutritional and emotional — are not in place, and the concurrent journey of that type of depletion alongside the sleep deprivation and worry that comes with being a new mum.

Mums with post-natal depletion feel deeply fatigued and exhausted. They may also have a feeling of ongoing “baby brain”, with poor concentration, poor memory and fluctuating emotions. Other symptoms include a sense of not coping, feeling tired but wired or tired on waking, falling asleep unintentionally, feeling not ‘good enough’, isolated, hyper-vigilant or anxious, and a sense of guilt or shame around the role of being a mother. Some of these will, at times, be experienced by many women, understandably given the extremely demanding task of being a mother, but not everyone feels this way – at least not constantly. So if you do, it’s important that you seek support, both nutritionally and emotionally.

These days, many women enter pregnancy with suboptimal nutrient stores, which are then further depleted by the time they give birth. Poor nutritional status at conception may be due to poor dietary choices, or it may be because their body hasn’t yet recovered nutritionally from a previous pregnancy. It is not uncommon to see the phenomenon of a mother giving birth to two children from separate pregnancies inside 18 months, particularly if they believe their “fertility window” is rapidly closing. Also, with assisted reproduction we are seeing higher rates of twins, which can physically exacerbate any depletion, having supplied two growing babies simultaneously with nutrition. You can do it. Of course you can do it! But additional support is required. And not enough people are aware of this or are taking actions to prevent or remedy the depletion.

To begin to address the depletion and fatigue that too many mothers are experiencing these days, it needs to be done gradually. Too much of anything, including information, can add to the feeling of being overwhelmed. However, working towards hormonal balance and nutrient repletion are key steps to getting a woman back to experiencing energy, achieving better sleep quality, and feeling that she can cope again.

It breaks my heart that many new mums feel pressure to lose “baby weight” or to regain their “pre-baby body” soon after giving birth. By restricting caloric intake you will also essentially restrict your nutrient intake, not to mention depleting your energy further. Please, please do not worry about the number on the scales. Your body has just grown a precious little human; it took time to do this and it will take time for your body to adjust back to its normal function. Right now, your body needs nourishment, especially if you are breastfeeding, so try to shift your focus to taking care of your body, rather than punishing it through deprivation. This is not the way to achieve optimal health (including a healthy “weight” for you).

Addressing micronutrient deficiencies and opting for a whole food way of eating with plenty of vegetables, are important places to start. During pregnancy, the mother supplies everything that the growing baby needs, so this is why many mothers become low in certain nutrients. For a depleted mum, iron and zinc will typically be too low for the body to make the substances required for happiness and optimism. The best dietary source of iron and zinc is good quality red meat, however a supplement may be necessary if a deficiency is present. Testing levels before supplementing is important.

Other nutrients that may need focus include vitamin C, vitamin B12, vitamin D and magnesium. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, kiwifruit, broccoli, cabbage and capsicum, vitamin B12 is found in animal foods and magnesium is found in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. The majority of our vitamin D comes from sun exposure rather than from our food. You can have your vitamin D levels tested to see if a supplement is needed.

DHA, a long chain omega-3 fatty acid, is also essential for a depleted mum. This is vital for nervous system support (including the brain), as well as hormonal balance. DHA is essential for the growth and development of the baby’s brain during pregnancy – particularly during the last trimester – and it continues to accumulate in your child’s brain at very high rates up to the age of two. Because it is so critical for the development of the baby’s brain, maternal DHA stores can become depleted during pregnancy. Yet, adults need adequate DHA too, for the maintenance of normal brain function. So it’s essential that you consume adequate DHA both during and after pregnancy to support your own brain and nervous system.

The best source of DHA is oily fish such as salmon and sardines. However, it’s important to note that due to the mercury levels in seafood, 2-3 serves of low-mercury fish per week is considered a safe intake. The body can convert another omega-3 fatty acid (called ALA) found in plants such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, into EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fatty acids present in oily fish) however this conversion can be inefficient, and some people may not be able to produce enough DHA through this pathway. So it may be necessary to obtain DHA directly from oily fish or to take a DHA supplement. There are now some good quality DHA supplements derived from algae, too.

If you are breastfeeding, your energy (calorie) requirements are actually a little higher than they were during your pregnancy, which is why you might often be feeling ravenous. Your requirements for a number of vitamins and minerals are also higher than they were during your pregnancy. Vitamin C is one example; the daily amount required to prevent deficiency while you are breastfeeding is about forty per cent more than it is during pregnancy.

So what should you eat? The focus for the depleted mum needs to be on easy, practical meals made from whole, real foods. Refined and processed foods tend to be devoid of the vitamins and minerals that are so critical to your health and vitality, so it’s essential that you eat plenty of nutrient-rich whole foods. A balanced, nutritious meal would involve lots of colourful vegetables, a source of protein (such as eggs, oily fish, good quality meat or poultry, or legumes), a source of carbohydrate (for example, potato, sweet potato, quinoa, millet or brown rice), and a source of nourishing fats (such as avocado, nuts, seeds or some extra virgin olive oil). Your body is your best barometer when it comes to what best serves you, so listen to the messages it is sending you and nourish yourself accordingly.

Here are some tips to ensure your body is getting the nourishment it needs:

Be prepared

When hunger hits, you want to have some nourishing snacks on hand so that you aren’t reaching for processed, convenience foods that are lacking in nutrition. You might like to prepare a big batch bliss balls made from nuts and seeds and a few fresh dates and keep them in the freezer so that you can grab a couple as needed. The nuts and seeds are rich in minerals and contain nourishing fats, which will help to satiate your hunger, and the dates provide carbohydrate for energy as well as fibre. Another option for a quick snack is to keep a couple of boiled eggs on hand. 

Cook in bulk

Rather than cooking just enough for one meal, cook a larger amount so that you’ll have leftovers. If you have more than one meals’ worth leftover and you’re freezing it, pack each serve/meal into a separate container so that you can easily defrost one meal at a time.

Slow cooker meals

Using a slow cooker can be a great way to prepare a nutritious meal – it just takes a little prep work in the morning or the night before, and you have a nourishing meal waiting for you at dinnertime. You can freeze leftovers, too.

Drink your greens

Green smoothies are an easy way to amp up your vegetable intake, and they can be a great snack to sip on while you are nursing. For an added boost of nutrients, try adding a serve of an organic green vegetable powder to your smoothie.

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