The six weeks following the birth of a child are traditionally considered the postpartum period, when a new mother is still settling into her role and bouncing back from pregnancy. In reality, however, a month and a half is hardly long enough for a woman?s body to recover from spending nine to 10 months growing a baby and, likely, many hours birthing it. In fact, many professionals believe it takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months for a woman?s body to replenish itself with the nutrients and vitality needed for her long-term health and the health of a future child. Without proper nutrition and nutrient supplementation, such pregnancy recovery is not likely.
?Newborn babies are built entirely from nutrients donated by their mothers. If these nutrients are not replenished, chances of postpartum symptoms greatly increase,? says Dean Raffelock, co-author of A Natural Guide to Pregnancy and Postpartum Health (Avery, 2002). Raffelock is a chiropractor, acupuncturist and clinical nutritionist in Boulder, Colo., specializing in helping new mothers recover lost reserves after giving birth.
The wrath of the postpartum period includes much more than just the widely experienced depression; it often gives rise to allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, eczema, joint pain and many other uncomfortable conditions. ?I would say 90 percent to 95 percent of postpartum complaints can be attributed to nutrient deficiencies,? Raffelock says. ?I am not going to say supplements can fix an unsupportive husband, but unless you have an absolutely stellar diet—and who does?—[supplements] are critical for a mother?s emotional and physical well-being.?
The first step to heading off postpartum complaints is to make sure the new mom is eating a healthy diet—emphasizing organic fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and avoiding refined sugars and flour, caffeine and alcohol. In addition, it is imperative to take in the proper doses of all nutrients the body needs. A good-quality multivitamin (see chart below) containing or in combination with the nutrients listed will replenish a new mother?s body and mind. ?I generally recommend a postpartum woman continue taking her high-quality prenatal vitamins and then add additional supplements where needed,? says Beth Burch, N.D., of Transitions For Health Women?s Institute in Portland, Ore.
Believe it or not, a mother?s body needs more nutrients directly after birth than it does during pregnancy. Recognizing the need for a postpartum formula with larger doses of specific nutrients, Raffelock?s wife, Stephanie, convinced him to formulate, test and market their own line of postpartum supplements.
The couple?s company, Sound Formulas, makes After Baby Boost, a program that provides all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and good fats a postpartum woman needs, according to the company. Of course, one can also buy nutrients individually. Regardless of how a woman gets them, the most critical postpartum nutrients include amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and magnesium.
?Amino acids are the foundation of mood neurotransmitters such as serotonin,? Raffelock says. ?When a mother?s body donates so much protein to making a baby, she becomes susceptible to amino acid deficiencies and mood disorders.?
?Of course, fatigue, hormone shifts and the reality of one?s new role can be enough to alter one?s mood, but when a woman suffers from depression for most of the day, every day, for two weeks following the birth of her child, it is considered postpartum depression,? says Diana Lynn Barnes, a licensed psychotherapist in Woodland Hills, Calif., whose specialty is birth and the onset of mood disorders. Barnes and Raffelock agree that there are certainly cases when antidepressant medication is needed to relieve a woman?s postpartum depression, but that in many cases, nutrient supplementation can do the trick.
For example, supplementing with the amino acid compound 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP) as well as the active form of vitamin B6, known as pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P), can increase serotonin levels. These supplements also boost the body?s levels of the amino acid tyrosine, which helps to keep thyroid function on track and ward off fatigue. ?Every woman feels fatigue and mood shifts after birth, but if she is suffering from full-blown depression, she should absolutely seek the advice of her health care practitioner. That is not something one should self-treat,? Burch says.
Omega-3 fatty acids
More often than not, postpartum women have low reserves of essential fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a situation that can contribute to everything from mood disorders to eczema. ?When a baby is being formed in the womb, the placenta will literally suck DHA and EPA out of the mother?s blood like a vacuum to form the baby?s brain, eyes, nerves and cellular membranes,? Raffelock says. And considering most prenatal formulas still don?t contain these fats, a pregnant woman has to be very vigilant about eating enough of the right foods. ?Fish is a great source of DHA, but it can also be high in mercury,? Burch says. ?So, I encourage women to choose wild salmon over tuna, and to incorporate flaxseed oil and ground flaxseeds into their diet, as well as DHA-rich eggs.?
Once a woman has given birth, she should increase her essential fatty acid intake. ?I think 2 grams per day is still a conservative dose, but one that will allow a woman to see changes in her hair and skin in just one week,? Raffelock says.
Calcium and magnesium
Every woman?s body needs a hefty amount of calcium to keep her bones strong. A pregnant woman needs extra calcium to perform the additional task of building her baby?s bones and teeth, while a nursing woman needs even more to preserve her own skeleton while nourishing her baby with breast milk. Although it is true that breastfeeding pulls some calcium from a woman?s bones, it is not permanent. In fact, bones are quickly rebuilt after weaning, often stronger than before.
?The standard calcium recommendation for postpartum women is 1,200 to 2,000 mg per day, and double that for breastfeeding women,? Raffelock says. ?But you have to make sure you are taking a biologically active form such as calcium citrate or calcium lactate.?
Magnesium works with calcium to maintain bone health; it also strengthens the heart and blood vessels. Generally speaking, a daily dose of 350 mg to 500 mg of magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate or magnesium aspartate will have the desired effect. ?It can also help enhance breastfeeding and encourage relaxation and sleep,? Raffelock says. ?When a woman finally has time to sleep, you want her to be able to drop off.?
The months directly following the birth of a child are a hectic time for a new mother. ?It is so easy for a woman to neglect herself while caring for her new baby, the rest of her family and her home,? Barnes says, ?when in reality it is the time when taking great care of herself will pay off for years down the road.?
Linda Knittel is a free-lance writer, editor and nutritional consultant based in Portland, Ore.
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