One of the most important things I've learned in my midwifery studies and in attending home births around Boston is that our diets have a direct impact on our pregnancies, births, and postpartum, and midwives not only pay very close attention to what their clients are eating, but will often use diet as the first means in addressing signs of imbalance, and more often than not changes to our diet are enough to bring us back into healthy balance.
As a mother of a toddler, I've also thought about how my diet has impacted and continues to impact my daughter, in pregnancy and nursing, and in terms of the foods that she now eats. The foods, the pesticides and herbicides, and the environmental toxins that I consumed before and during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding, and which she consumes now, are part of her, for better and for worse.
One step that I encourage in my herbal practice before getting pregnant is to use the six months to a year before actively seeking a pregnancy to focus on our health (our partners too!). This maximizes our own health as we embark on pregnancy, and gives excellent resources for our babies to draw from when they're in the earliest and most sensitive stages of development (and when deficiencies in nutrients such as folate can cause neural tube defects like spina bifida).
A basic way to start is by loving your liver. Your liver performs hundreds of metabolic functions—that is, the processes our bodies perform to maintain life. These roles include detoxifying waste products of digestion, environmental toxins and chemicals, and clearing hormones from the body (which is so important for our fertility). One of the liver's most critical of these functions in pregnancy is to make albumin, a protein which keeps the right amount of fluid in our blood and which helps prevent the dangerous disease toxemia (also called preeclampsia).
I strongly recommend that people planning to become pregnant in the next year focus on supporting their livers. It allows us to remove heavy metals like lead, mercury, aluminum, and others, from our bodies so that our babies don't do it for us. It aids in maximizing our fertility. It sets the stage for our children's life-long health. And, it can also be a profound and enlightening wake-up call for parents who have never really taken a good look at what goes in their bodies.
Supporting Your Liver in Preconception and Pregnancy
A well-rounded, whole foods diet will go a long way to support your liver in pregnancy. The basics include ensuring that each meal contains two servings of brightly colored vegetables, consuming dark leafy greens daily, and opting for soaked and sprouted whole grains, beans, and legumes.
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale help produce enzymes that support the liver’s role in detoxification.
- Dark leafy greens are not only folate rich (which the developing embryo needs), but they help reduce inflammation and are full of antioxidants. Bitter tasting foods, especially greens, are associated in traditional medicine with the liver, perhaps because they’re rich in the highly beneficial antioxidant glutathione.
- Cook with a wide variety of fresh herbs, including cilantro (and its seed, coriander), parsley, oregano, turmeric, which are safe in pregnancy for dietary intake. These herbs are rich in antioxidants. Garlic, and especially raw garlic, reduces inflammation and supports the liver. To cook with garlic, crush your cloves and wait 15 minutes either before cooking or consuming raw to reap the maximum benefits.
- Berries are high in antioxidants and are a good source of minerals, while also being low on the glycemic index (which measures the amount of sugar being processed by your body, including fruit sugar).
- High fiber diets help to bind and move toxins and hormones that the liver has cleared from our blood, and fiber is especially useful in pregnancy when our digestion has slowed down (which means that we reabsorb toxins sitting in our colons, yuck).
Additionally, it is crucial to remove harmful foods from your diet that can stress or harm your liver and health.
- Remove foods containing artificial ingredients, sweeteners, and colors (ahem, processed and packaged foods) and do your best to eliminate foods sprayed with pesticides and herbicides; these categories of foods are taxing on the liver, which works overtime to remove these harmful chemicals from your body.
- Eliminate sugary drinks and snacks, and refined grains.
- Choose organic, pastured meat, dairy and eggs. This is an investment in your health, and your baby’s health.
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol, which stress the liver and both of which are linked to fertility challenges, and which can have all sorts of effects on a baby in utero.
There are also wonderful herbs to support the liver, and thankfully, several of these are recognized to be safe for pregnancy as well as nourishing and nutritive.
- Burdock root, dandelion root, and yellow dock root are three excellent herbs for the liver. Burdock root can also be purchased in Asian markets and some health food stores as “gobo root,” and can be sliced and added to stir-fries.
- For an iron-rich, nourishing and liver-supporting tea in pregnancy, mix equal parts burdock root, dandelion root, yellow dock root, and nettle. Steep 1 oz herbs in 1 qt boiling water for 2 hours, strain and discard herbs. Drink up to 2 cups daily.
- Turmeric is a phenomenal herb to support preconception liver detoxification, not to mention a powerful anti-inflammatory, up to 2,000 mg daily. It's safe in pregnancy to cook with, but if you're going to use therapeutic amounts then I suggest consulting with your midwife or doctor.
For more ideas on liver detoxification, check out the following:
- Aviva Romm, MD, "How to Detox Every Day: Top Ten Foods and Herbs"
Image source: "Freedom," Lauren McKinnon, Flickr Creative Commons