Copywriter AnneMarie McDonnell explores the relationship between nutrition and mental health during pregnancy. If you are pregnant, please read our disclaimer before continuing. This article is for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. We recommend you speak to your GP and refer to the NHS guidance on what’s safe to eat in pregnancy. Advice differs around the world: if you’re not in the UK, please check your country’s national guidelines.
I’ve long been more in tune with my mental wellbeing than most. Having been exposed to the realities of mental illness early in life, I’m acutely aware of the fragility of the brain’s equilibrium and determined to maintain my own at any cost. I have always kept an eye on my stress levels and checked in on my feelings and emotions. I’d later go on to discover the powerful capacity of even gentle exercise to impact positively on body and mind. Then, six years ago came a truly transformative incident when I lost two and a half stone on a predominantly whole food diet. Having felt just fine before, the new me was buzzing with energy and happiness and, as clichéd as it might sound, I felt more alive than ever. This cemented my suspicion that there was indeed a relationship between the quality of food we eat and, not only our physical, but also our mental health.
Then, I got pregnant for the first time. Because I was thrilled, I was somewhat bemused at some of the changes that developed in terms of my mood. I never felt the need to seek medical assistance during the pregnancy, but spent a good portion of the nine months feeling less than myself: deflated, wiped out and sometimes even on the verge of tears (and bewildered as to why that would be the case at this happiest of times). After many years of consciously trying to preserve my mental health, it really unnerved me.
Because it was my first pregnancy, I found it impossible to decipher if these were ‘normal’ mood swings or if I was drifting closer to that dreaded cliff edge I’d resolved to never get near. My colourful, vibrant diet became a thing of the past as I attempted to sustain myself with comfort food. I also discovered that my iron levels were low and had been for some time. In hindsight, I suspect that this all contributed to the way I was feeling.
Nutritional Therapist (and Motherdom Editorial Board member) Nina Sabat is a firm believer when it comes to the existence of ‘good mood’ foods and the role they play in our mental wellbeing. However, it may come as a surprise that it’s the good old-fashioned, protein-rich foods such as well-cooked eggs, pasteurised cheese, well-cooked chicken, and safely prepared beans and pulses which top her list when it comes to eating for good mental health in pregnancy and beyond. To see the NHS guidance on what’s safe to eat in pregnancy click here. She explains that ‘chemicals in the brain which influence our mood such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and oxytocin are all amino acids, peptides, or made up of protein. Eat protein-rich foods and you’re essentially taking in the building blocks which the brain then uses to produce these chemicals.’ Good omega fats such as those found in avocado and sardines also have a key role in maintaining brain health and mood regulation. Nina recommends that these be eaten within a meal during pregnancy – no more than 2 portions a week of oily fish – so they can be more easily digested and are less likely to bring on that queasy feeling so familiar to many.
Morning sickness is, of course, a standard pregnancy side effect for many expectant mums. In an ideal world, Nina would advise mums to build up their nutritional stores before conceiving which would then allow for some wiggle room in cases of sickness or food aversion. However, she acknowledges that this isn’t always realistic and therefore emphasises the importance of taking the recommended vitamins in pregnancy. (Read more on that from the NHS here).
What about sugar? Though stressing that treats are fine in moderation, Nina warns that a continuous high-sugar diet can alter our mood by influencing how the body manages the stress-response hormone, cortisol. Remember that chocolate contains caffeine, too. Caffeine should be limited during pregnancy to no more than 200mg a day. (Check out the NHS advice here.)
Veganism is now more widespread than ever and Nina urges plant-based expectant mothers to be aware of the particular challenges they may face when it comes to consuming a balanced diet during pregnancy. As outlined already, getting enough high-quality protein is essential for good brain function. She encourages pregnant women who are vegan to consume a broad range of plant proteins. The NHS recommends you “thoroughly wash all fruits, vegetables and salad ingredients.“
I’m now six months into my second pregnancy and it’s already been a much smoother experience, though I’m relieved that my early over-reliance on white toast is now a thing of the past. I’m taking Nina’s advice on board by trying to eat a more varied diet. However, I remain especially mindful of her plea to expectant mums to always be gentle on themselves and to simply do the best that they can; excellent advice that we should all take on board both during pregnancy and into motherhood.
What should you eat in pregnancy to maintain good mental health? Nina recommends:
- protein-rich foods such as well-cooked eggs, pasteurised cheese, well-cooked chicken, and safely prepared beans and pulses;
- good omega fats like avocado and sardines eaten within a meal (no more than 2 portions a week of oily fish);
- taking vitamins recommended by the NHS;
- limiting your sugar intake (also being mindful of your daily caffeine allowance);
- if you’re vegan, consuming a broad range of plant proteins.