Using Pregnancy to Prevent Childhood Allergies

February 26, 2010

Emma Leavens, Nutritional Therapist, currently 18 weeks pregnant

Allergies such as eczema, asthma, hay fever and food reactions are becoming an epidemic in developed countries. Why is that? Where are they coming from and what can we do in pregnancy to decrease the chance of our baby having allergies? To answer these questions, its important to understand the basics of how the immune system works in relation to allergies.

There are two arms to the immune system, called TH1 and TH2, and in a perfect world they are each sat on one side of an equally balanced seesaw. TH1 fights bacteria and viruses and TH2 defends mainly against environmental and food allergens. The TH1 and TH2 group of cells are in turn regulated by another group of immune cells called T regularity Cells (Tr). The Tr is found in our GALT (Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue), which lies in our digestive system and is basically THE DIGESTIVE TRACT’S IMMUNE SYSTEM. So if the Tr cells aren’t doing their job the TH1 and TH2 will be completely out of balance.

So, lets move to the digestive system. It should be populated with beneficial bacteria and yeasts, but too often the modern woman’s gut is populated with far too many negative bacteria and yeasts. Antibiotics and the contraceptive pill (to name just a few types of medications) kill bacteria in the gut. Once the good bacteria is killed, the bad stuff can grow and feed off our not so perfect eating habits and really start to flourish. This leads to all sorts of other pathogens settling in our digestive tract, causing foods not to be absorbed properly and toxins to be let into our blood stream. So the TH1 arm of the immune system is having to work extra hard, killing all these viruses and yeasts and random other pathogens. It’s working too hard!! Imagine the seesaw, the TH1 is loaded down with work, so the TH2 starts to go up. Not only that, the TH1 isn’t coping, so his buddy TH2 decides to start working hard to give him a hand. However, TH2 isn’t programmed to fight these gut pathogens, it only knows how to stop environmental allergens from getting into our body. So it starts doing more than it should, it starts working harder but as a result is reacting to all sorts of things in the environment which normally it wouldn’t attack – pollen, dust, foods etc. So the outcome – ALLERGIES!!!!!!!!!

Our babies are made up of what we’re made from. As they develop inside us, they get whatever we have inside our digestive systems (could be toxins or could be good wholesome food). When we breastfeed them, their own sterile stomachs are being populated with whatever bacteria is in our digestive system. When they come out through the vaginal tract, they pick up a whole host of bacteria which helps populate their own gut – if our gut is good, the vaginal bacteria will be good, but if our gut is not so good, our vaginal bacteria won’t be so good either.

What to do? – Basically work hard to ensure the gut of your baby is populated with good bacteria, to ensure they have a well-balanced immune system from the word go!

To do this, you need to ensure your digestive tract is populated with the right kind of bacteria and yeasts and stop feeding the bad ones. This will have a significant impact on the immune health of your baby. If you’re not yet pregnant you can do a bowel cleanse and detox before building your body back up ready to carry a baby for 9 months. If you’re already pregnant, here’s what to do:

  • Cut out any form of refined sugar, white rice and bread
  • Eat a mainly savoury diet, with lots of good fats, protein and vegetables
  • Drink lots of vegetable juices or have a teaspoon of barley grass powder in water daily (sip throughout the day not all in one go)
  • Take the right type of probiotic and/or prebiotic tablet or capsule. Probiotics contain good bacteria and yeasts and prebiotics are food for probiotics, so help good bacteria/yeasts stay in your gut. The actual type of probiotic depends on each individual and what’s happening inside, but as a rough guide:
  1. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (10 billion organisms, less won’t be effective enough) – take in the last 3 months of pregnancy and whilst breast feeding – specifically for helping to prevent allergic reactions in babies
  2. Saccharomyces boulardii – is safe to take throughout pregnancy, is recommended for those who have a digestive yeast overgrowth
  3. Broad spectrum probiotics, which contain a range of probiotic cultures – up to 9 different species. These are better at populating a gut fully rather than single dose strain of probiotics.

My absolute absolute advise though, is to seek help from a qualified practitioner rather than self prescribe – a Nutritional Therapist or Naturopath. Please e-mail me at with any questions or doubts about what to do. The above  is simply a brief guide to give you an idea of what to look for in health stores, as well as the importance of your digestive health on the health of your baby.


Anaemia in Pregnancy – should I supplement?

February 17, 2010

Emma Leavens, Nutritional Therapist, currently 17 weeks pregnant

Anaemia most commonly occurs in the second trimester of pregnancy. Before taking iron tablets though it’s important to consider the following:

  • Never take iron tablets in pregnancy unless a blood test has confirmed that you are deficient. Links have been made between too much iron in the blood and lower birth weight babies. Less iron means thinner blood, which in turn means it can transport nutrients to the fetus more efficiently. Too much iron can prevent the transport of such nutrients.
  • Ensure you are being tested for iron levels at an appropriate time. Do not get checked for anaemia right after an expanse in blood volume. When this occurs it will take some time for the red blood cells (which are what are used to measure iron levels) to catch up to the rise in volume. This can look like anaemia, when in fact it isn’t. Speak to your midwife or doctor about appropriate times to take a test.

If you have been advised to take iron tablets, make sure you are informed:

  • Minerals in supplement form need to be ionised, ie they have to be bound to something. For example, a calcium citrate supplement will be a calcium ion + citric acid. This bond is what gets them successfully into your system without poisoning your cells. In the digestive system, the bond is broken and the mineral allowed to make it’s way to the cells where it’s needed. The bond can be strong or weak. A weak bond is without a doubt better as it breaks down easily, is gentle on the stomach and is easily absorbed.
  • You doctor or mainstream midwife will prescribe your iron as ferrous sulphate. This is the strongest of the strongest bonds, (mainly because its extremely cheap for the government to subsidise) an inorganic mineral which is often prescribed in ridiculously high dosages (around 600mg pr day) due to the fact that you can’t absorb most of it. Side effects are usually constipation (not what you need more of in pregnancy) and intense stomach pain, due to your poor stomach struggling with mega doses of a supplement it has to fight to break apart.
  • 600mg of ferrous sulphate will actually only give your body about 100mg of actual iron (called the elemental dose).

So my advice is to increase your levels through:

  • Ensuring you are digesting and absorbing your food properly.
  • Eating foods high in iron
  • Supplementing with food source supplements – Spirulina Powder and Beetroot Extract are easy to get hold of in health food stores and are fabulous sources of iron
  • Supplementing with appropriate iron tablets, with weak gentle bonds. This means you won’t need to take 600mg per day, as you’ll absorb much more of the smaller but more effective dose you do take, again reducing side effects.

Recommended iron supplement forms are iron or ferrous bound not with sulphate, but with:

  • citrate
  • glycinate
  • EAP2
  • picolinate
  • fumarate

You simply have to look at the label of the iron supplement you are taking to see what the iron is attached to.

If you’re low in iron and worried, don’t be, it’s easy to remedy and some medical professionals don’t actually think it’s a problem, see quote below, taken from Fetal and Maternal Medicine Review (2001, vol 12, 159-175, Cambridge University Press)

As a haematologist I would like to present an alternative view to the belief that routine iron supplements during pregnancy are neither necessary or beneficial in developed countries and that advantages, if any, are far outweighed by widely publicized real and theoretical side effects.

For most clinicians it is difficult to accept that in well nourished populations the extra requirements of pregnancy are not met by a normal mixed diet. The haemodilution which occurs in healthy pregnancy because of the dramatic expanse in plasma volume has encouraged the acceptance of abnormally low haemoglobin levels as being physiological. Traditionally, obstetricians have believed that the only manifestation of iron deficiency during pregnancy is maternal anaemia which results in very few clinical manifestations and there are no other adverse sequelae for the mother and none at all for the fetus and infant. These concepts are supported by the fact that controlled trials do not demonstrate any obvious benefit of iron supplementation, particularly if the neonate is not subjected to long-term follow-up.

The Myth of Vitamin A Toxicity in Pregnancy

February 10, 2010

Emma leavens, Nutritional Therapist, currently 4ish months pregnant.

As a pregnant woman, I have been advised to avoid liver due to the high vitamin A content. As a Nutritional Therapist, who works with whole foods to bring about healing, I know this is another myth given to us by well educated, but misinformed nutrition and medical professionals. So if you’re pregnant and avoiding foods high in vitamin A, please read on…

The importance of vitamin A can not be underestimated, it is needed for the growth and repair of body tissues; it helps protect mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, throat and lungs; it prompts the secretion of gastric juices necessary for proper digestion of protein; it helps to build strong bones and teeth and rich blood; it is essential for good eyesight; it aids in the production of RNA; and contributes to the health of the immune system. Vitamin-A deficiency in pregnant mothers results in offspring with eye defects, displaced kidneys, harelip, cleft palate and abnormalities of the heart and larger blood vessels. Vitamin A stores are rapidly depleted during exercise, fever, PREGNANCY and periods of stress.

The only scientific studies ever done, which have concluded that vitamin A causes birth defects, have been on synthetic vitamins. There is a big difference between manufactured vitamin A in the form of retinol, found in supplements and added to fabricated foods, from natural vitamin A complex found in vitamin A containing whole foods. It is well known that synthetic vitamins are less biologically active, hence less effective, than naturally occurring vitamins. This is especially true of the fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, because these tend to be more complex molecules, with numerous double bonds and a multiplicity of forms. Natural vitamin A occurs as a mixture of wonderful things called isomers, aldehydes, esters, acids and alcohols, so the body can utilise it efficiently. Pure retinoic acid for example, a synthetic metabolite of vitamin A used to treat adult acne, is well known to cause birth defects.

Misplaced concern about vitamin A toxicity has led to advice to pregnant women being to avoid foods containing vitamin A, and parents to avoid giving cod liver oil to their babies. Yet earlier books on the feeding of pregnant women and infants recommended generous doses of cod liver oil, frequent liver consumption for pregnant women and two teaspoons of cod liver oil per day for babies three months and older. And if we could go back further in time, we would see that our ancestors ate what is known as a ‘primitive’ diet, they ate organ meats, such as liver, which not only contains the highest amount of folic acid compared to any other food, is also brimming with good fats, protein, iron and other B vitamins! In fact they ate ten times more vitamin A than we consume today, and generation after generation, they produced healthy, strong, happy offspring!

If you’re interested in reading more about vitamin A in pregnancy and early childhood, I strongly recommend you read this article.:

Once you’re convinced and want to improve your health and that of your children, have a read of:

Constipation in Pregnancy – other causes

February 7, 2010

Emma Leavens, Nutritional Therapist, currently 4 months pregnant.

No woman should suffer from constipation in pregnancy. A slowing of bowel movements yes, due to:
  • the relaxin and progesterone hormones relaxing and slowing the whole digestive system down
  • needing greater absorption so the little baby inside can get the nutrients
  • little baby growing and squashing everything in the abdominal area
But if you have a good diet full of whole foods, are drinking your minimum two litres of water per day and are still constipated think about this:
  • 1).  Your liver may be sluggish, ie not functioning 100% (but NOT ill), it’s always worthwhile doing a detox prior to trying to conceive, however, if you didn’t get round to this don’t worry. To speed up the functioning of your liver (which is breaking down huge amounts more hormones than before you were pregnant, so is pretty busy) in a safe way, do the following first thing when you wake up:
  • chop a lemon up (leave rind on) and place in a food blender or smoothie maker with a cup of warm water and a large tablespoon of olive oil
  • blend then put through a sieve to get rid of all the none liquid bits
  • drink the liquid and have your liver stimulated and your digestive tract cleansed and oiled
  • wait an hour before eating
I do this about 3-5 times a week and usually have a bowel movement within two hours
  • 2).  You probably also have an overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeasts in your gut. This will be causing food to ferment rather than digest, making you constipated, bloated and full of gas. The surge in hormones and lowering of the immune system during pregnancy allows the bad bacteria and other gut critters to proliferate. So, as well as taking a good quality probiotic supplement and eating probiotic foods (unpasturized sauer kraut is amazing), there’s more you need to do to really sort this problem out and it’s a bit controversial, but it works:
  • Remove all grains and starchy food from your diet (potatoes, rice, wheat, etc etc) and replace these with non-starchy vegetables (greens, carrots, etc). Yes it’s hard, yes it takes commitment and YES, it works. When grains get into your intestines, they are in the form of double sugars, anyone with any digestive problem (eg constipation) will have trouble breaking these into single sugars so that they can be absorbed. Instead, these foods hang around in the gut, feeding the bad bacteria and yeast, further preventing successful digestion and leading to more constipation. Google ‘coconut or nut bread recipes’ to make non-starchy bread.
  • At the same time, ensure you are eating enough fat – anything greased becomes slippery, so keep your bowels oiled. God fats only though, raw olive oil, avocado, fish, nut oils, linseed oils, animal fat (butter esp). So with fibre, carbs and antioxidants from fruit and veg, and protein and fat from fish, meat, nuts, oils and minerals from all of these, you should be feeling on top of the world!

Calcium in Pregnancy – keeping levels high

February 4, 2010

Emma Leavens, Nutritional Therapist, currently 4 months pregnant.

Calcium, why do we need it? – for the growing baby’s bones, their conduction of nerve impulses and the formation of their heart and other muscles. Plus to make sure the huge amounts being used up from our bodies whist pregnant, are not depleted, leaving us osteoporotic and broken later in life.

Keeping your calcium intake up during pregnancy is not only about what you eat. It’s about what you don’t let pass your lips and how you treat yourself. So, the health conscious amongst you will know the good foods:

  • Tahini – the best!!
  • Poppy seeds – a teaspoon of poppy seeds has the same amount of calcium as 3 cups of milk.
  • Plus – almonds, parsley, watercress, beet greens, buckwheat, walnuts, broccoli, spinach, pecans and most green foods, esp barley grass powder – great in pregnancy.

But what not to eat? The poisonous substances are:

  1. Coffee – one cup robs our bones of 40mg of calcium
  2. Soft drinks – they severely interfere with calcium/phosphorus balance, and too much phosphorus binds with calcium, making it unavailable in the body – so the body takes it from the bones
  3. Sugar – decreases calcium and magnesium absorption
  4. White table salt, the recommended daily serve of 6g makes the body excrete 24-40mg in the urine
  5. Too many acid foods – e.g. grains and meat. Don’t eat these two together, have them separately with lots of raw veg so that your body dosen’t over acidify. If you’re too acidic, calcium will be leached out of your bones to alkalise the body.

Look after yourself – stress takes calcium out of the bones. Back in the caveman days, when they got stressed (ie running away from a giant tiger etc), the blood needed to thicken so a wound wouldn’t mean they bled to death. It was thickened by excreting calcium out of the bones and into the blood stream. Nowadays, we seems to be a low level of stress most of the time and are therefore probably losing calcium all day long. So, take time to relax, do your yoga and your massage and your baths, make it a priority, but don’t stress about it!