It’s no secret that pregnancy is a time that is nutritionally demanding for both mother and baby. In recent years, with the increasing popularity of bone broth and mounting awareness of gut health and the microbiome, more women are asking how to have a healthy pregnancy.
If the mother’s gut is healthy, then the baby will have access to all of the nutrients available from the mother’s diet. If the mother’s gut is not healthy, then even if her diet is pristine, her nutrient absorption will be compromised, which in turn means that the nutrients available for fetal development will also be restricted.
How Does Nutrition Impact the Microbiome?
The food that we eat does more than fill us up. What we choose to nourish our bodies with can have a dramatic impact on our digestive system, our immune system, our nervous system, our reproductive system, our cardiovascular system, our microbiome — and ultimately, the rest of the body.
Foods that are overly processed, filled with sugar, or loaded with pesticides can aggravate the tight junctions in the small intestine, resulting in leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability. The barrier function of the small intestine is meant to keep non-nutrients out of the bloodstream, while only allowing fully digested nutrients in. When this barrier function is damaged from food sensitivities and toxins, foreign particles enter the bloodstream and incite chaos, forcing the immune system to perform damage control.
When the immune system becomes activated because of leaky gut, numerous chronic or autoimmune conditions can result, like thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, digestive problems, depression, anxiety, weakened immunity, and even infertility. Because 70 percent of the immune system actually lives in the gut, overall immunity is a good reflection of the health of one’s gut.
The same can be said for mental health. Emotional stress can trigger neuroinflammatory signaling, which can increase inflammation that leads to anxiety and depression. The brain, the immune system, and the gut are so closely connected because, while much of immune system resides in the gut, the enteric nervous system is also intertwined with the gastrointestinal system. The body is a single unit that works interdependently — no single body system functions without sharing space or function with one or more other body systems. It’s clear that when the gut isn’t functioning as it should, it can have devastating results for the nervous and digestive systems, as well as the immune system and the reproductive system.
Why the Microbiome Matters for Mother and Baby
If a mother’s gut is not healthy, her immune system and nervous system are also going to be compromised. These can directly impact fetal development in utero in areas of immunity, metabolism, and microbiome that can have long-lasting effects that extend far beyond birth and infancy. Some elements of gut health will be beyond a pregnant woman’s control, and this information shouldn’t be used for scaremongering. Many factors surrounding pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum can end up well beyond a woman’s control. Variables can stack up quickly during pregnancy because even though it’s the most natural thing in the world, it is still utterly complex when one fully-formed human emerges from another.
One thing that a woman can strongly influence is her gut health before and during pregnancy. No, she may not be able to control the method of delivery, or ability to breastfeed, but she can control specific dietary choices before and during pregnancy to care for her microbiome.
The Best Foods to Eat While Pregnant
Thanks to a blossoming field of research into gut health, we understand more and more how the foods that we eat can help or hurt gut health and the beneficial bacteria that resides in the gastrointestinal tract. The best foods to eat while pregnant are also foods that support a balanced microbiome. These foods include:
- Bone broth: Rich in collagen, glycine, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous, along with other nutrients that support digestive health, bone broth is an anti-inflammatory superfood. It also supports barrier function of the small intestine. Bone broth during pregnancy is a perfect addition to your diet because it’s easy to digest, it can help to settle pregnancy-induced nausea, and it packs a lot of nutrients into a little amount of food. It is also great for increasing fertility naturally.
- Fermented foods: Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut, and while supplementation can be beneficial in pregnancy for a variety of reasons (including helping to prevent preterm birth), probiotics can also be obtained from dietary sources like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled foods. While these may not sound appealing to some pregnant women, others tend to crave salty foods and can embrace their desire for pickled or fermented foods by freely indulging. Beyond probiotic benefits, fermented foods are also rich in fiber and vitamin C.
- Salmon, sardines, and other omega 3s: Some women shy away from fish during pregnancy, but wild-caught salmon and sardines are considered safe for both mother and baby, and they pack a nutritional punch with anti-inflammatory omega-3s, protein, and vitamin B12, which is essential for neurological health.
- Leafy greens: Rich in folate, regarded as the “pregnancy vitamin” because of its protective properties against neural tube defects, leafy greens like spinach, watercress, kale, romaine, and chard are must-haves in any healthy pregnancy diet. While folate has protective properties for fetal development, it’s also essential for the mother-to-be’s health by promoting a balanced nervous system and by potentially lowering the chance of developing postpartum depression.
- Antioxidant fruits: Blueberries, cherries, raspberries, and other berry fruits are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and trace minerals that help to reduce inflammation and nourish the nervous system. They also carry a low glycemic index, so even if gestational diabetes is present or a risk factor, these fruits can be enjoyed without upsetting the carbohydrate load.
- Protein: Amino acids are the building blocks of life, and protein is a major source of non-supplemental amino acids. Protein can also often be the most difficult macronutrient for pregnant women to consume enough of because it is harder to digest. As the second trimester rolls into the third, many women experience heartburn or acid reflux which, at best, is uncomfortable, and at worst, is extremely disruptive. That being said, protein is essential for a healthy pregnancy, and for an overall healthy gut. Choosing quality proteins from grass-fed, pastured sources can improve digestion, but it’s also possible to get some of each day’s protein from bone broth, which contains an average of 6 grams of protein per cup of broth. In comparison, an extra large egg also contains 6 grams of protein.
- Sea salt: Iodized table salt is certainly not a health food, and should be avoided by people with blood pressure concerns. Sea salt, particularly Celtic sea salt or Himalayan sea salt, is a mineral-rich seasoning that can provide electrolytes and minerals. Because pregnancy increases total body water requirements, it can be easier for women to become dehydrated, which can result in reduced amniotic fluid or other pregnancy complications. Adding these pure forms of sea salt to a pregnancy diet can help to restore electrolytes.
- Ginger: A well-known remedy for pregnancy morning sickness, ginger is also an anti-inflammatory superfood that promotes healthy digestion. It can be consumed in raw form, used as a tea, pickled, or taken in capsule form.
Healthy Pregnancy Meal Ideas for Optimal Wellness
To end on how to have a healthy pregnancy, here are a few healthy pregnancy meals using some of the foods listed above.
- Bone Broth Soup with Chicken and Vegetables— In a stockpot over medium heat, combine 4 cups bone broth, 4 cups chicken stock, 3 chicken breasts (cubed and sautéed for 5-7 minutes), 2 turnips (diced), 1 sweet potato (diced), and 1 onion (diced). Bring to a boil and let simmer for 2-3 hours or until vegetables are softened. Add sea salt, black pepper, and other favorite seasonings to taste.
- Baked Salmon, Roasted Broccoli, and Sauerkraut— Preheat oven to 375°F. On a baking sheet, lay two large salmon filets on one end, and 3 cups of broccoli on the other. Drizzle broccoli and salmon with avocado oil or grass-fed butter, and sprinkle with sea salt, black pepper, and lemon juice. Bake for 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily apart with a fork. Optional: add a side of sauerkraut before serving, which can be homemade in advance, or can be purchased from a health food store.
- Smoothie with Coconut Water, Collagen, Berries, and Greens— In a blender or food processor, combine 2 cups coconut water, 1 scoop collagen, ½ cup berries of choice, and 2 handfuls greens of choice. Pulse or blend until well mixed. Serve chilled.
Aimee McNew is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, infertility, and autoimmunity. Her first book, The Everything Guide to Hashimoto’s, releases Oct 2016.