Looking after your body, after a pregnancy
Natalie had a good pregnancy. Everything was always fine at her midwife appointments. At one point her iron was low but no one ever mentioned it again, and her platelets were borderline but they said there was nothing she could do to help that anyway. She worked up till her due date, went overdue, was induced and had an emergency C-section after 18hours of labour. Her low platelets meant she lost more blood than is ideal and the pain from the surgery meant she needed a pain pump to hold her baby comfortably.
When she got home she tried to take it easy, avoiding anything to aggravate her stitches. Her midwife visited to check on her and the baby. To help with her feeding technique, to make sure her wound wasn’t infected. It wasn’t.
But Natalie wasn’t experiencing the joy she thought she would when she looked at her perfect baby, she wasn’t sad but she didn’t have the energy to feel happy either.
The much-awaited 6 weeks arrived. The magical point at which she was meant to be fully recovered. That’s what everyone had been telling her. She can drive, exercise, have sex, her body should be up to all it’s pre pregnancy shenanigans. Instead even walking felt like dragging a deadweight. Why did she feel so tired she could cry?
As you have probably guessed Natalie was physically unable to recover because she was terribly anaemic. In fact she was already anaemic before she lost blood during her birth. But testing her blood was overlooked, and it will now take her 3 months to gain back her iron stores to a normal level. This is one client’s story. I hear too many similar ones on a weekly basis.
I think we highly underestimate the toll a pregnancy takes on our body. This miraculous process of growing another human being from a twinkle to a living, breathing, crying babe and then further nourishing them for months and months solely from our own store of nutrients is no mean feat! Yes, we are made, destined, designed to do it. But are there some missing pieces in the care of mothers postnatally? I think there is.
Most books about pregnancy end with the birth. And there is barely a pamphlet to be had from the doctor or midwives about postnatal care beyond post-natal depression.
All the basics are attended to. We are assessed for tears, sewn up if necessary, checked for infection, haemorrhoids, excessive bleeding. This is all fantastic, sometimes lifesaving. These basics are often non-existent in isolated, rural areas due to lack of medical knowledge, and woman can die as a result. I am so very grateful for this support and medical expertise available to me in the western world. But maybe there are a few things we could learn from ancient traditions as well.
There is a theme that runs through many cultures of designating the 30-40 days post birth to rest, nourishment and bonding. Of creating the space needed to heal, recover fully and deeply bond with your baby. I don’t know a woman who would say no to that. Often we feel exhausted, emotional, depleted, even shocked by the birthing process. Food has always been an important medicine in these times. Vegetarian Buddhists may consume meals of meat, and even in villages where food is scarce there is a great importance placed on supplying enough nutrients and calories to the new mother. Her needs are put above everyone else’s during this time.
An innate understanding of the importance of the mother’s health drives this idea of 40 days of nourishment, of protection from the world, from everyday duties, from sex. Without the mothers’ health, the child can’t thrive. Without the mother’s health, the family disintegrates. You can’t really argue with that.
Viewing this idea through my naturopathic lens fills me with inspiration. The impact of a nourished mother on a family’s life could be life changing. Here are some tangible things you can look into for your own post partum journey, or for that of a family member or friend.
I spend a lot of my day in the clinic talking about the concept of blood building. Stemming from the idea in traditional chinese medicine (TCM) of blood deficiency, blood building is an ancient treatment that I find applies to a lot of the pregnant and post natal women I see. Blood deficiency is not synonymous with anaemia, although it can include it and a lot of the symptoms of blood deficiency can look at first glance like iron deficiency. Blood is made up of more than just iron. B vitamins, folate, copper, protein, and vitamin A are all important blood building nutrients too.
You may need blood building if you experience:
Paleness of lips, nails, tongue, face.
Drying of skin and hair, also falling hair
Dizziness, light sleep and difficulty falling to sleep, anxiety, depression, bad memory and focus, restless legs
Heavy periods or very light periods, headaches, lack of body strength
What to do
Eat more mushrooms, prunes, red kidney beans, read meat, organ meats, bone marrow soup (yep!) brewers yeast, black strap molasses, dark green leafy vegetables. Also be sure to eat most of your food cooked and avoid too much raw or cold food and beverages.
Have your Ferritin (iron stores), platelets and haemoglobin checked in the two to three weeks post birth.
Don’t stop taking your iron supplement if you have been prescribed one. Breastfeeding draws a lot of blood building nutrients out of storage.
If you have been seeing a naturopath or herbalist during your pregnancy, make sure you have a blood building herbal tonic prepared and ready for you. Great herbs post birth include:
Rehmannia, Dong Quai, Lycium, Astragalus, and Peonia. There are many others depending on the right fit for the person.
Speaking of Herbal help
There is a long history of herbal use in the support of women postnatally.
Hormonal balance, emotional health, energy, stress, milk supply issues and heavy post partum bleeding can all be addressed. If you can’t get away from the house to an appointment, find someone to do a skype/phone consultation.
Post partum thyroiditis
Roughly 1 in 20 women will be affected by post partum thyroiditis. This condition is often mistaken for the stress of having a newborn, and therefore goes undiagnosed for many months. The immune suppression that occurs during pregnancy can lead to a rebound increase in thyroid antibodies causing a sort of attack on the thyroid gland. This results in either an under or over functioning thyroid gland (and sometimes it swings between the two). You may experience extreme fatigue, heart palpitations, anxiety, and depression. In most women the condition begins between 2-6 months after birth and resolves within 12 months. I recommend all my clients continue taking iodine till the end of breastfeeding for this reason (and many others!).
And don’t forget
Yes, it’s normal to be tired, to cry a fair bit, to take time to adjust to your new life, but never feel that you shouldn’t ask for help. If something feels wrong, ask around your mummy friends and ask a professional too. Speaking up could save you months of heartache at a time that should be (tiringly) blissful.
Post partum health around the world
Ansei – a period of ‘peace and quiet’ including special nourishing foods, staying home, and mostly not lifting a finger.
‘Doing the Month’ – 30-40 days of confinement where the Mother and child spend every moment with each other and the child never leaves the side of her mother or other family member. Special meals are prepared to help the mother recuperate.
Jaapa (in Hindi) refers to the 40 day recuperation period where the mother follows a special diet to promote breast milk and haemoglobin levels. She is exempt from household chores, religious rites and sex.
Traditionally Greek mothers would spend the first 40 days with the child and family in a period called sarántisma, or fortifying. After this period of rest she would present the child to the community at church for a special blessing.
Annaliese Jones has an Auckland based clinic specialising in Nutrition, Naturopathy and Herbal Medicine. She offers care for anyone at any age with a special interest in fertility, pregnancy and children’s holistic health. See annaliese.healthcare to watch a video about her practice and to sign up to her newsletter.