What can you do to set your baby on a path to good lifelong health as a pregnant mom? When my husband Victor and I decided to try for a baby, we poured ourselves into researching what we might do to lower our baby’s risk of chronic illnesses since we both suffer from pretty much every chronic condition you can imagine. Between my studies in Nutritional Therapy at the Irish Institute of Nutrition & Health and Victor’s PhD in psychology, we found that by making relatively simple changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can reduce a child’s risk for these conditions significantly— perhaps by as much as 80-90 percent!
It mainly comes down to two things. First: Minding your microbiome, the friendly bacteria in your gut. Your microbiome is passed on to your child via birth and breastfeeding and then plays a crucial role in programming your baby’s immune system. Second: Avoiding environmental and lifestyle factors that cause inflammation in your body. In this guest post, I’d like to share my top five “lifestyle tweaks” to achieve both.
Eat fresh, whole foods
Eat whole foods and cook from fresh ingredients. Try to avoid processed foods with long ingredient lists. Don’t overeat — make smaller portion sizes, or try using smaller plates! Ideally, follow a mostly plant-based diet with lots of fiber and healthy fats like olive oil and fish. Fiber feeds your microbiome, which turns it into anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting short-chain fatty acids. Olive oil and omega-3 fats from fish are also super-anti-inflammatory. The easiest, tastiest way that I know of to achieve this: The Mediterranean diet.
Unless they are really, truly necessary, try to avoid antibiotics. They wipe out your microbiome, which can take years to recover. Antibiotics are generally overprescribed, especially during pregnancy and early childhood. Often there are safer, more effective alternatives you can discuss with your doctor about trying first, like probiotic treatments with specific beneficial bacteria.
Go to bed early
This is a big one for us — in our family, if anybody doesn’t get enough sleep, we’re dealing with a gremlin the next day. We get cranky, moody, and our allergies and skin flare-up. We need 8 hours of sleep to feel properly rested and recharged. Some people insist they can get by on much less, but Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” shows that pretty much everyone’s cognitive performance and immune function declines dramatically, and inflammation soars, if they permanently survive on less than 7 ½ hours of sleep per night.
Ditch the scents
Replace scented cleaners & cosmetics with more natural options. Raid your cleaning cabinet and your cosmetics drawer, and toss out anything that’s heavily scented or can be sprayed. The worst are spray cleaners and “air fresheners” — a funny name for something that gives 20 percent of the US population headaches and breathing difficulties! These two are the worst for causing indoor air pollution that irritates your lungs and causes airway inflammation.
Products that are heavily scented almost always contain hormone-disrupting phthalates that have been found to cause allergies, asthma, and worse. Most supermarkets and drugstores now stock a range of more natural cleaning products and cosmetics. As a rule of thumb, choosing those products over the regular ones should be an improvement for your wellness and health.
Get out into nature & get dirty: It’s not a secret that being out in nature reduces stress and boosts your mood. Also, your body turns sunlight into Vitamin D, which is crucial for your immune system and feeds your microbiome. Speaking of which: Exposure to the friendly bacteria that live on plants, on pollen, in soil, and in the fresh forest air also increases your microbiome diversity and makes you less prone to allergies.
There are many other things that you can do to improve your baby’s chances of lifelong good health – The key is to start somewhere and not get overwhelmed. Health is a spectrum: Every little step you take towards a healthier lifestyle is worth it!
Michelle Henning is a Certified Nutrition & Health Coach and the co-author of Grow Healthy Babies: The Evidence-Based Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy and Reducing Your Child’s Risk of Asthma, Eczema, and Allergies.