Although sleep deprivation, hormonal shifts, and baby’s needs leave little time for new mothers to concentrate on eating well, good nutrition supports healing and recovery. Katie Bressack, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based certified holistic health coach, was already guiding women toward optimal nutritional health when she learned she was pregnant with twins. While she was prepared for her postpartum nutritional needs, she said many women are not.
“Eating in a way to support your body during postpartum is super beneficial for your mental, physical, and emotional health,” said Bressack. “Yet, conversations and information about postpartum nutritional importance are lacking.”
Illinois Department of Public Health informs that 10-20% percent of new moms struggle with some sort of postpartum depression. And, while depression is what is primarily discussed when new mothers visit their obstetricians post-birth, nutritional issues are often underlying factors of emotional and mental health concerns, according to Bressack.
“You go in for your six-week checkup after the baby is born, and the doctor asks you how you’re doing,” she explained. “You’re exhausted. They ask you about depression issues, about your birth control, but not your nutrition. Postpartum care in general doesn’t get much of a focus on what the body actually needs … the health care.”
She added, “Carrying twins a year and a half ago, I was in this position myself to benefit from the knowledge. So I share with other women what is important.”
Ann Dunnewold, a Dallas psychologist and co-author of Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide, sheds light on bodily changes. For example, the estrogen and progesterone levels in a woman’s body drop dramatically after they give birth. Hormones affect energy, mood, cravings, and more, conveys the book.
The thyroid can also be affected after the birthing experience. In fact, a condition known as postpartum thyroiditis, which is an inflammation of the thyroid gland, causes such symptoms as insomnia, anxiety, rapid heart rate, fatigue, weight loss, irritability, and more, shared American Thyroid Association.
“There is a difference between being exhausted because you’re a mom and feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck because you have a nutrient deficiencies and/or a thyroid issue,” said Bressack, who suggested labs and bloodwork may be needed to determine if any other problems are occurring.
March of Dimes also provides education to women about what is happening in their bodies after they give birth. Another problem caused by hormone fluctuations is hair loss. The March of Dimes instructs: “Nutrients in fruits and veggies may help protect your hair and help it grow.”
Said Bressack, “The first two weeks of postpartum are especially important to get your nutrients back in balance. Women have hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue … estrogen is so low that it takes a while to come back again. I was waking up in the middle of the night for 2-3 weeks. My endocrinologist wanted me to take a sleeping pill. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear the babies if they cried. I decided to focus on upping my magnesium, valerian root, and went back on CBD oil – which I had stopped taking when I got pregnant. And I was putting myself to bed earlier as well and I started getting the right amount of sleep.”
Other postpartum nutritional advice Bressack offers includes:
- Consume warm, cooked foods, such as cooked vegetables and sweet potatoes, as well as bone broth, which has collagen. Bone broth can be made ahead of time and kept in a freezer, or it can be purchased at most grocery stores.
- Have Vitamin D levels checked. While supplements are an option, Vitamin D food sources are fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, and liver, fortified dairy and orange juice, and egg yolks.
- Replenish the body’s iron loss with such high-iron foods as red meat, liver, claims, oysters, and green leafy vegetables.
- Add Vitamin B12 to the diet through consumption of supplements or foods, including clams, tuna, liver, beef, and salmon as well as fortified dairy and cereals.
- Make sure there is enough intake of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, which reduces symptoms of depression and inflammation and enhances mental focus; primary foods are salmon, sardines, fortified eggs, and dairy.
- Eat plenty of high quality proteins like beans, legumes, lentils, organic eggs, chicken, beef, and wild-caught low-mercury fish.
- Add into diet healthy carbohydrates found in fruit, sweet potatoes, oats, buckwheat, and millet, etc.
In general, the postpartum period – at least initially – involves “eating for hormones,” noted Bressack. “If you really eat for your hormones, it helps.” After asking women such questions as, “What are you eating? Are you eating enough? How is your digestion?” she often advises them to consume more healthy fats, reduce their sugar intake, and treat themselves to a bit of dark chocolate.
These nutritional tips aid in rebalancing hormones thrown out of whack by pregnancy and birthing.
Also important are blood sugar levels, exercise, quality sleep, regular bowel movements, and a strong pelvic floor, the latter of which Bressack explained enables women to feel better physically after their bodies have endured childbirth. Specialists trained in pelvic floor therapy, as well as online instruction, such as Restore Your Core, provide information. Plus, keeping healthy snacks available will stabilize blood sugar, and women can ease into exercise by walking, stretching, and swimming.
“In this country, we have so many resources, but much important information is not getting out there through physicians and other resources,” she said. “Some of my clients will have a doctor that will focus on holistic solutions and nutrition, which is beneficial. But that is not always the case.”
Bridget Sweeney, who resides in Puerto Rico, was eight-months postpartum with child number two when she realized she was still struggling with chronic fatigue, joint pain, sleep issues, and an inability to lose weight. “My whole approach to postpartum recovery was not on track (diet, exercise, stress management),” said Sweeney. “I was so desperate to lose the baby weight and go back to ‘normal’ that I had taken a very aggressive approach to exercise and diet, but none of it was working and I was continually feeling worse, instead of better.”
With Bressack’s assistance, Sweeney began to eat foods that would improve blood sugar balance and digestion. “Eventually, I eliminated gluten and significantly reduced the amount of added sugar I consumed daily,” she explained. “We focused on supplements and nutrient dense foods and lots of protein. I stopped working out intensely and focused on gentle exercises like walking, yoga, and restoring my core muscles.”
Changing her nutritional focus resulted in Sweeney losing 20 pounds from February to June 2021. “And, my digestion and other issues like brain fog, period cramps, etc. are all so much better,” she added. “There is so much pressure on women to just ‘bounce back.’ In general, I think there is such a huge void in postpartum care and support for women. … no conversations about nutrition needs …”
What can wreak havoc on an already compromised postpartum digestive system and overall health are vices such as too much sugar, alcohol, and processed foods. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day keeps the liver flushed of toxins that may build up and exacerbate low moods or depression.
Additionally, Bressack counsels postpartum mothers to “… always use your crockpot or instant-pot to make cooking healthy meals easy. We used our crockpot 95% of time for the first nine months. It doesn’t warm your house up, especially during these hot summer months, but still give you the ability to achieve meals with the right nutrition. And it keeps women from being stressed at the end of a tiring day and being tempted to eat out or order out.”