The best supplements for a healthy pregnancy and beyond.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Q: My husband and I are expecting our first child. What supplements should I be taking?
Three key nutrients that every pregnant woman should think carefully about are calcium, omega-3s, and folic acid.
Surprisingly, calcium needs don’t go up during pregnancy, but since most women don’t get enough of this mineral at any time during their lives, it’s a good idea to pay extra attention to this mineral during pregnancy. Getting enough calcium (the recommendation is 1,000 mg daily for women over the age of 18, pregnant or not) makes it less likely that a pregnant woman will develop pre-eclampsia. In fact, women with higher calcium intakes have half the risk of pre-eclampsia and a much lower risk of preterm deliveries.
Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in the development of the fetal nervous system, retina, and brain. The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is particularly important. Research finds that babies born to moms who missed the mark with this nutrient score lower in terms of fine motor skills and communication. Supplementing with 200 mg of DHA is prudent.
Keep taking omega-3s after your baby is born, too, since it can help stabilize mood postpartum. Women with lower levels of DHA are more likely to develop postpartum depression.
All women of childbearing age should take 400 mcg of folic acid daily, and pregnant women should double this—800 mcg daily—since this B vitamin reduces the chances of certain birth defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly (neural tube defects). Folic acid is found in abundance in dark-green leafy vegetables, as well as virtually all multivitamin/mineral supplements (especially prenatals).
Preventing birth defects is not the only reason to watch your folic acid intake. The folic acid a mom consumes during pregnancy can affect her child for years to come. Research shows that preschoolers whose mothers supplemente
d with folic acid during pregnancy stayed focused longer, had better verbal skills, and were more successful in social interactions than children whose moms didn’t take this B vitamin during pregnancy.
Smart choices pay off for both mom and baby and, if they become habits, may bring health benefits to the entire family long after the baby is born. Added benefits: healthy foods will help the body heal after delivery, keep energy levels up, and (if a woman is nursing) pass along the best nutrients to the baby.
A good place to start is choosing foods from my list of nine favorite “superfoods.” Including these nutritional superstars in the diet can really make a difference:
- Chia seeds
- Coconut oil
- Cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage)
- Fish (omega-3-rich oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, or tuna)
- Flax seeds
- Green foods (such as spirulina, chlorella, Klamath Lake blue-green algae, barley grass, and wheat grass)
- Live-culture yogurt
- Superfruits (such as açai, goji, mangosteen, or pomegranate)
- Sweet potatoes
Make sure you’re getting enough calories and drinking enough water to support milk production. It’s a good idea for nursing moms to keep taking prenatal vitamin/mineral supplements. There’s also a lot to be gained from continuing with omega-3 fatty acid supplements. The DHA that helped neural development in utero continues to aid healthy brain and eye development in nursing infants.
There are several herbs known as galactagogues, which means that they encourage milk production. These herbs, which include fenugreek, stinging nettle, and vitex (chaste berry), have a rich history of common use in the European herbal tradition.
Losing the Baby Weight
A couple of weeks after your baby’s birth, it’s completely normal to still look five months pregnant. Think of pregnancy as an 18-month journey: It takes nine months to gain weight during pregnancy and at least another nine months postpartum to return to a pre-pregnancy shape.
Now is not the right time for an extreme diet, especially if you are breast-feeding. Take it slow with your weight-loss goals and consider one of the following three supplements to lend you a hand:
The more vitamin D circulating in your bloodstream, the lower your body weight tends to be. On average, women lacking in this sunshine vitamin are heavier by more than 16 pounds when compared to women with adequate levels of vitamin D. Add in the fact that more than 60 percent of young women don’t get enough vitamin D, and it really makes sense to supplement with vitamin D daily.
7-Keto, a substance related to the adrenal hormone DHEA, acts as a non-stimulant thermogenic fat burner. An accumulating body of evidence indicates that 7-Keto results in greater weight loss, compared to placebo. In one study, 7-Keto was shown to increase metabolic rate during a diet.
This fiber-like extract from crustacean shells reduces fat absorption. Research finds that people taking chitosan lose more weight and fat mass. However, don’t use this supplement if you are pregnant.
Care for Yourself After Baby
As soon as a woman gives birth, it sometimes seems as if there isn’t any more discussion about or attention paid to the mom (aside from postpartum depression). However, there are many health concerns that are unique to this period. Here are four common new-mom health issues, and supplements that can help:
A compound in green tea called L-theanine (which is available as a supplement) has a calming effect on the body, and as an added bonus strengthens immunity. Taking 50–250 mg of L-theanine can relieve anxiety and help with insomnia.
The supplement CoQ10 can provide a vitality boost, and is especially useful in older moms (40+) since the body’s own production of this compound declines after 40. Use the ubiquinol form of CoQ10.
Thyroid problems are common in new moms. It is easy to overlook or rationalize the symptoms of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), since so many symptoms of hypothyroidism mimic what new moms generally experience: fatigue, depression, constipation, headache, dry skin, hair loss, and an inability to lose weight.
The mineral selenium, in the form of selenium methionine, may be helpful in the amount of 200 mcg daily. Also, 10 mg of zinc daily supports thyroid function, and it’s a good idea to add in 1–2 mg of copper daily (to counteract zinc’s action of blocking copper absorption).
Urge incontinence is more common in women than men, especially after having a baby. Magnesium supplements (350 mg magnesium hydroxide twice daily) help many women with this problem.
A veteran researcher, writer, and mom, Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, is the author of numerous health and wellness books, most recently Life After Baby (Basic Health Publications, 2012). Additionally, she has written hundreds of magazine articles about achieving wellness through natural medicine and dietary supplements. She earned her Masters in Public Health from Portland State University, and B.S. in Health Education from Western Oregon University. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, son, and daughter.