Pregnancy : Prenatal Nutrition: Optimal Nutrition Support During Pregnancy

By Michael T. Murray, ND

Pregnancy obviously results in an increased need for vitamins and minerals. Deficiency or excess of any of a number of nutrients can lead to birth defects and/or complications during pregnancy for the mother. What is a mother-to-be to do? Here are some key recommendations to increase the odds of a healthy pregnancy:

Recommendation #1 -- Eat a highly nutritious diet

The importance of high quality nutrition during pregnancy is obvious. The key recommendation is to focus on natural, whole foods. Stay away from processed foods especially those foods that have no real nutritional value (i.e., junk foods). Also, read food labels carefully and try to stay away from foods that contain trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils including margarine, shortening, and most processed foods.

Studies have shown that the higher intake of trans fatty acids, the greater the risk of delivering a premature baby. These fats interfere with fetal development, especially in the brain. Another type of food to avoid is cured and smoked meats. These foods contain compounds (nitrites and nitrates) that appear to be very harmful to the fetus. Studies implicate diets high in nitrites and nitrates during pregnancy with higher rates of brain cancer, diabetes, and leukemia in the offspring.

Recommendation #2 -- Increase the intake of omega-3 fatty acids

The second recommendation to eat 2 to 3 servings per week of cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, etc.) or take a high quality fish oil supplement to increase the level of omega-3 fatty acids available to the growing fetus. One of the more important omega-3 fatty acids for fetal development is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In fact, DHA is essential for proper brain and eye development as it is the primary structural fatty acid in the gray matter of the brain and retina of the eye. Adequate levels of DHA are important for all ages, but it is particularly important for pregnant and nursing women.

Significant brain and eye development occurs while the fetus is in the womb and continues during the first year after birth. Infants rely on their mothers to supply DHA for the developing brain and eyes initially through the placenta and then through breast milk. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 long chain fatty acid in breast milk and studies show that breast-fed babies have IQ advantages over babies fed formula without DHA. But, DHA levels in the breast milk of U.S. women are among the lowest in the world. Increasing DHA levels should be a primary goal for all pregnant or lactating women.

Recommedation #3 -- Take a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral formula

The discovery that folic acid supplementation in early pregnancy can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects by as much as 80 percent has been referred to as one of the greatest discoveries of the last part of the 20th century. The evidence became so overwhelming that the FDA finally had to reverse their previous position and acknowledge the association and allow folic acid supplements and high folic acid containing foods to claim that "daily consumption of folic acid by women of childbearing age may reduce the risk of neural tube defects. "

Folic acid is just one of many essential nutrients. What about the others? Are they less important than folic acid? Absolutely not! A deficiency of virtually any nutrient during pregnancy is going to have serious repercussions for the mother and the baby. Furthermore, adequate levels of key nutrients such as antioxidants, calcium, magnesium, and other B vitamins may help insure a healthy pregnancy and delivery by preventing complications of pregnancy such gestational diabetes as well as the potentially life-threatening condition of preeclampsia (also known as toxemia of pregnancy).

Simply stated, taking a multiple vitamin and mineral designed specifically for pregnant and lactating women makes perfectly good sense. The only caveat is to make sure that the vitamin A content is provided by beta-carotene rather than vitamin A. Do not take more than 5,000 IU of vitamin A per day if you are pregnant unless it is provided in the form of beta-carotene rather than as retinol.

Recommendation #4 -- Take additional iron if needed

The dramatic increase for iron during pregnancy cannot usually be met through diet alone. Supplementation is often warranted. Usually the amount of iron contained in a prenatal multiple is sufficient, but if a mother-to-be develops anemia or has evidence of low iron stores (serum ferritin is the best determination) then additional supplementation is required.

For iron deficiency during pregnancy, a woman will need to take an additional 30 mg of iron twice daily between meals for best absorption. If this recommendation results in abdominal discomfort, then 30 mg can be taken with meals three times daily.

Final Comments

Pregnancy carries with it tremendous responsibility. It is not enough to avoid factors that can damage the developing fetus like smoking and alcohol, during pregnancy proper nutrition is even more critical than usual. I urge all mothers-to-be to follow the simple recommendations above to help give your developing child the best odds of developing into a healthy baby.

Dr. Michael T. Murray is one of the world's leading authorities on natural medicine and the author of more than 30 bestselling books, including The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. He is a graduate and former faculty member, and serves on the Board of Regents, of Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington.

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