Falling pregnant is one of the most memorable moments in any woman’s life. This is often the first time we truly consider our health and especially our diet. We are wired this way and it is for good reason. Our nutritional status before and during pregnancy largely influences the outcome of the pregnancy. If you are iron deficient when falling pregnant, it may affect the duration of your pregnancy and even the weight of your baby at birth. This is also a critical period where your nutrition status will ‘programme’ the long term health of your baby.
Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do during this period to ensure that we are nutritionally sound. Apart from taking all of our vitamins and minerals regularly (see our article on iron deficiency), evidence suggests that the bacteria in your digestive tract (gut microbiome) plays a key role in the health and well-being of you and your baby.
Ever heard of probiotics? They are live (good) bacteria that we can buy and consume on a regular basis. You might’ve seen ‘LAB’ on various food labels. This stands for Lactic Acid producing Bacteria – all probiotics are LABs. But not all LABs are created equal. Evidence suggests that different strains affect the body differently. Here’s a heads-up – L rhamnosus and B. lactis are the most beneficial, so be sure to carefully read the label when shopping for a probiotic.
Studies show that taking probiotics during pregnancy has a direct and positive effect on foetal immune development and may, in fact, reduce the risk of allergies in your baby. As a mom-to-be, probiotics are good for you too. Studies have found that taking probiotics daily may reduce the risk of preeclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy), maintain insulin levels (this is key in reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome) and lower the frequency of gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is a condition that can appear in pregnancy when your body cannot absorb the glucose from the food you eat, which increases the glucose levels in your blood. This condition can significantly affect your baby during his/her gestational age (macrosomia) and may predispose you to diabetes later in life.
Essential Fatty Acids
Throughout pregnancy and the first year of your child’s life, you will see exceptionally fast growth and development. During this time, many cognitive, visual and motor developmental milestones will be reached, so it is essential that your child’s nutrient needs are met.
Although humans can synthesise saturated and mono-unsaturated fats, we cannot synthesise Omega-3 and Omega-6. In particular, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid). DHA is a critical part of cell membranes especially in the brain and retina of the eye, and AA plays a key role in the immune system.
The DHA and AA that your baby gets in utero are primarily from the placenta. As a mom-to-be, these amounts are influenced by your own intake of these two fatty acids. DHA is imperative during pregnancy and lactation – an average intake of at least 200 mg/day for both pregnancy and lactation is recommended, which is not too difficult to achieve – we are talking about two portions of sea fish per week. Although pregnant women are often warned about environmental contaminants in fish, this amount of fish per week is nothing to worry about. Other sources of DHA include enriched foods and dietary supplements.
A number of studies have shown that the intake of DHA (in the form of fish or supplements) results in a slightly longer pregnancy, higher birth weight and a reduced risk of preterm delivery. Another study shows that a higher concentration of DHA in breastmilk reduces the occurrence of post-partum depression (reportedly the highest occurrence is in South Africa [24.5%] and the lowest in Japan [2%]).
The amount of DHA in breastmilk is solely dependent on what you eat. So it is recommended that you continue with your supplements after pregnancy to ensure higher levels of DHA in your breastmilk.
DHA intake during the first years of your baby’s life has proven to be extremely beneficial. In the short term, DHA aids visual recognition memory. In the long term, we have seen higher scores on verbal intelligence and other behavioural patterns, lasting up to 8 years of age. It even has a positive effect on other health issues such as lowered blood pressure. Since blood pressure tends to track from childhood into adulthood, early exposure to DHA may have lasting effects on reduced blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, not to mention controlling the immune system and its response to allergens later on in life.