It’s been six months since my last blog post and in that time I’ve learnt more about the human body, nutrition and hormone interactions, and health in general, at a far deeper level than from any academic course or research project I’ve ever participated in. All inspired by my wisest mentor and new sidekick: my baby girl Olive.
Motivated by wanting to get this thirty six year old body as well nourished and physiologically balanced as possible to (breast) feed her with gusto without depleting my self, I’ve hungrily ploughed through research for information that was surprisingly not readily available. What could be more motivating than the precious gift of an exquisite baby?! The initial long days and nights during those first few weeks of almost-hourly feeds were spent feeding baby with one arm, while one-handed typing, research-article-page-turning and Skype-calling all manor of specialists with the other. This baby-making experience has driven me to need complete understanding of my body changes both pre and post partum, to gain clarity on the issues commonly faced by my female clients (with first-hand experience, I look forward to sharing a greater understanding with my clients) and of course to make sure I’m doing the best for my babe nutritionally while not compromising my own production of youthful, metabolic energy.
Here are a few snippets of my findings; the topics I’ve found particularly interesting and the insights that have helped me personally glide through pregnancy (more here) and the first few months with a newborn. I can only go into so much detail in this post: pregnancy being a delicate and personal subject, I reserve the intricacies and specific advice for clients I consult with one on one, based on their individual metabolism and health history.
getting to know prolactin:
Although mainly referred to as the hormone secreted during pregnancy for its role in milk production, prolactin is also an inflammatory, adaptive hormone produced by stress. And in regards to lactation, it’s action is to break down bone to find calcium for milk. Postpartum, it may also account for the hair loss many women experience if protective progesterone drops off too dramatically.
It’s natural, and in fact necessary that prolactin levels are higher than normal during pregnancy and if breastfeeding. However excessively high levels need to be addressed, especially if combined with elevated estrogen, stress and malnutrition, and the effects of it compensated for through adequate nutrition; namely calcium replacement, and enough calories to counteract stress. Too much of anything can be potentially harmful.
Salt is fundamentally important during pregnancy as well as postpartum, as noted by Tom Brewer in his research into pre-eclampsia in late pregnancy. If you consider that salt restriction leads to increased serotonin (also inflammatory), which in turn increases prolactin, that then increases salt loss in the urine, which leads to further serotonin production … you can start to see how there are some vicious cycles at play when simple elements are removed from the diet.
Interestingly the osmolarity-disturbing effect of consuming plain water will increases prolactin too, while salt tends to lower it. Another reason I recommend other fluids rather than just water in most cases.
When you add to this the fact that many women are already estrogen dominant and that estrogen too increases prolactin while inhibiting the absorption of calcium, there should be no doubt that optimizing nutrition, pre, during and post pregnancy is a must.
Keeping your estrogen in check with healthy progesterone production is also important for staving off postpartum depression, which is connected with estrogen dominance also. Encourage estrogen clearance by supporting liver detoxification (liver needs sugar and protein to function), minimise polyunsaturated fats and keep endotoxin down (step 1: start with a daily carrot salad: recipe here).
Vitamin B6 is also good for lowering prolactin: liver is an excellent source. Make a batch of Pâté once a fortnight.
Elevated prolactin is also intrinsically linked to hypothyroidism …
and back to metabolism & thyroid
Keeping my temperature elevated (between 36.6 and 37 C) a sign that thyroid hormone is being converted efficiently, has also helped me manage stress hormones during this time.
“Protein, salt, thyroid, and progesterone happen to be thermogenic, increasing heat production and stabilising body temperature at a higher level. Prolactin and estrogen lower the temperature set-point.” – Ray Peat PhD, Salt, energy, metabolic rate, and longevity
In hypothyroidism as well as in the case of estrogen dominance, prolactin is elevated, so just imagine the stress to the body for a woman going into pregnancy already in this stressed state.
Healthy thyroid levels are closely tied to fertility; I’ve helped “make” babies over the years in practice by correcting hypothyroid.
The best methods for testing thyroid are clinical symptoms in conjunction with body temperature and pulse. I assess my clients using these methods (as well as lab tests if necessary) and teach them how to monitor temperature through the day and rectify their damaged metabolism with better food choices.
The protein and calcium of milk, especially in combination with sugar, both help to increase the metabolic rate and temperature also. Aah, those pregnancy cravings for cheesecake and gelati are making perfect sense now!
nutrition needs: post-partum recovery and stocking up for milk requirements
Coming back to calcium (for down regulating the inflammation of prolactin and maintaining bone mass), choosing protein sources that have a high calcium to phosphorus ratio is key. For example dairy naturally has this ideal ratio while muscle meat is high in phosphorus (another reason to eat meat with bone broth). Also worth noting other calcium-poor, phosphorus-rich foods to limit: grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Eggs would have an ideal ratio if we ate them shells-and-all! Which is why I keep my eggshells for making eggshell calcium powder. Otherwise, eat your omelet with cheese!
Some great reading on understanding this integral mineral-balance here.
And thank you Rob Turner for reminding me of this quote:
“Pregnancy and nursing increase all nutritional requirements, with the possible exception of vitamin D, copper and iron. Calorie intake should increase slightly in pregnancy, and considerably in nursing. Zinc, folic acid, B12, and probably B6, and vitamin E, requirements are increased more by pregnancy than by nursing, while protein, other B vitamins, calcium, iodine, and probably magnesium, vitamin A, and possibly fats, are needed in larger amounts for nursing.” – Ray Peat PhD, Nutrition for Women
In fact, energy intake should increase by at least 200 calories during pregnancy and 1000 plus during nursing. I’ve done best consuming 2,500 calories plus; It’s felt like a full time job just trying to eat enough food lately!
It’s important when trying to get maximum calories and nutrients that the foods are of course nutrient-dense but also efficient and digestible. That means limiting cellulose (especially raw insoluble fiber), things like fruits with unavoidable seeds, and other things that challenge and complicate digestion, trigger inflammation, and just fill you with bulky roughage. There is no one “list” of foods; it’s person-specific based on what works for you.
And regarding the nutrients listed in the above quote, we’re talking food sources with all their naturally-occurring co-factors, ideally not supplements unless absolutely necessary, assessed individually.
and regarding iron …
“Since the custom of giving large iron supplements to pregnant women has been established, there has been an increase in jaundice of the newborn. It has been observed that women who didn’t take iron supplements during pregnancy have healthy babies that don’t develop jaundice. I have suggested that this could be because they haven’t been poisoned by iron. Those supplements could also be a factor in the increased incidence of childhood cancer.” – Ray Peat PhD, Iron’s Dangers
Hmm, interesting don’t you think?
the insanity of post-baby dieting
I think it’s a bit of a worrying sign of the times that when people have seen me with my newborn, many times the reaction has been: “gee you look good and slim for having just had a baby” like that’s my goal and I’d be complimented. We equate slimness with health. If anything I’ve been trying my best to retain weight for backup to support me through breastfeeding. In saying that, I’ve worked my metabolism (pre pregnancy) to a place where I can consume adequate calories, without gaining excess weight. Although some fat stores wouldn’t go astray.
Immediately post pregnancy is definitely not the time to be restricting calories or stressing the body with high intensity exercise, breastfeeding or not. Your body is in a compromised state. This is such an important time to be taking it easy; replenishing, resting, recovering.
And if you haven’t ditched that unhealthy carb/sugar phobia already, do it now. Re-read my sugar article from last year here.
Most women I see, pregnant and non-pregnant women alike, are paranoid they are eating too much, when in fact most are not eating enough! Rather than restricting calories which suppresses the thyroid and elevates stress, when they eat more food, the right pro-metabolic foods (and avoidance of anti-metabolic PUFAs), they accelerate their metabolism, support healthy hormone production, and decrease stress.
So eat up!
foods to help encourage milk flow in the early weeks:
Milk (the type that you personally digest best), orange juice and salting food to taste helped me enormously. And again, eating enough calories in general.
“Studies have shown that most healthy breastfeeding women maintain an abundant milk supply while taking in 1800-2200 (or more) calories per day. Consuming less than 1500-1800 calories per day (most women should stay at the high end of this range) may put your milk supply at risk, as may a sudden drop in caloric intake.“ – Kelly Bonyata, IBCLC
I found it a wee bit nerve racking at first to just be patient and trust that my milk supply would meet her demand, but with everything I was doing and her persistent suckling, I’m lucky it did all get into sync eventually. Fenugreek can be a great aid too if things still aren’t happening a few weeks in.
Also to encourage ample milk supply, and aid in your own recovery, don’t underestimate …
sleep & light
I realize now that talking about sleep to a new mum (especially one with multiple kids) is cruel irony, but if you could forego other activities (ditch the non-essential house work for as long as possible!) and take every opportunity to at least nap whenever you can, it’s probably more important than anything else. See it as a necessity, not a luxury.
Darkness and sleep deprivation are both stressors in themselves, so to a body that’s already in a compromised state, sitting up through the night with an unsettled little person is additional stress to address. Also factor in that sleep loss effects metabolism (lowers it).
“Good nutrition and plenty of rest are essential to postpartum recovery.” – Dr John Lee, Hormone Balance Made Simple, 2006
Daily exposure to natural full-spectrum light for both mum and bubs is essential for so many reasons: increasing thyroid, decreasing stress, obtaining Vitamin D, establishing circadian rhythms and improving night time sleep quality. If I couldn’t muster up the energy for a walk in those early week, at the very least I’d feed her on the balcony early in the morning, or by a window. During the day I will lie out in the sun, baring some skin; maybe just lay on a rug in a park, with baby in filtered light in the shade of a tree.
Red light therapy can also be beneficial at night for reducing stress and elevating morning temps, and evening Epsom salt baths too.
For me, nursing through the night, this piece of brilliance was my savior.
And to all those mothers of more-than-one, well that’s a whole different story and I cannot fathom how you do it! Maybe more experienced mums out there could offer advice on how to squeeze in rest time in the comments below.
optimal first solids
As Olive approaches six months, you can imagine me, her protective mum and a nutritionist (and recovering-perfectionist!) being particularly particular about what her first solid foods will be.
Ripened sweet fruits and other stewed fruits will be her main carbohydrates, while avoiding those starchier high serotonin varieties (ie: bananas and dates).
I’ve been discussing this with all sorts of experts and look forward to sharing these findings with new mums when they reach the six month stage.
and the most important thing …
In my excited flurry of learning, the most important thing is to remember the most important thing: time with her … trying not to do so much … and just enjoying her while she’s so small and needs me so much (and I need her; oh my goodness her smell is the most blissful thing … and now that she’s giggling and interacting … it’s ridiculous!)
My friend (and Supermum) Natalie reminds me of this, with this post in particular.
Which is why I’ve not been consulting these past six months, and why you won’t find me on my facebook page daily by any means (but I’ll try as often as I can!). Besides, if you want intelligent daily information, that’s already been covered brilliantly on this page. ‘Like’ it!
some references & highly recommended reading:
From PMS to Menopause; Hormones in Context – Ray Peat PhD
Salt, energy, metabolic rate, and longevity – Ray Peat PhD
Hypothyroidism; The Unsuspected Illness – Broda Barnes,1976
Hormones, energy, aging, and endogenous carbon monoxide, March 2013 Newsletter – Ray Peat PhD
The Peat Whisperer – Danny Roddy 2012
Metabolic Toxemia of Late Pregnancy – Tom Brewer
Tissue-bound Estrogen in Aging – Ray Peat PhD
Hormone Balance Made Simple – Dr John Lee 2006
Iron’s Dangers – Ray Peat PhD
me, pregnant (My pregnancy blog post)
Disclaimer: My posts are not meant to be individualised treatment plans, protocols, etc. I share what I research and use, and that is it. They are meant to spark thought based on the normal anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the body. The information contained in this blog should not be used to treat or diagnose disease or health problems and is provided for your information only.