It’s hard to believe that the very diet which every doctor and internet pregnancy-help-page recommends for morning sickness actually contributes to or even worsens the problem.
But it’s true.
Diets high in refined carbohydrates actually make morning sickness worse.
The problem With Bland Morning Sickness Diets
The so called BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) consists of bland, dry, high carb foods and is recommended to relieve morning sickness. On this diet you could also eat candy, potatoes, pasta, saltine crackers – you know, really healthy stuff. The diet eliminates fat and protein in the name of keeping women off the bathroom floor.
The diet is conventionally prescribed to calm the stomach of anyone feeling nauseous, suffering from the flu, or who has been vomiting. Eating these foods may provide some immediate reliefe but to continue the diet for weeks on end is another story entirely. A diet like this will affect a person’s hormonal balance and nutritional status. It does not provide a growing fetus with the nutrients it needs and will only deplete the mother further.
The BRAT diet is emotionally satisfying (at first), because candy, bread, or any kind of carbohydrate eaten alone and not combined with protein or fat releases a flood of serotonin to the brain by way of the tryptophan surge that happens after after consuming these high glycemic foods all by themselves. This can make the diet addictive and a pregnant woman may defend it to the bitter end.
But in reality, the BRAT diet:
- disrupts hormone balance
- disrupts mood
- causes spikes and dips in insulin
- contributes to insulin resistance
- eliminates brain building omega 3s
- eliminates many nutrients such as vitamin A and D
- eliminates bone building minerals
While the diet may keep a woman from puking, it doesn’t usually make her feel great. That is usually not happening until around week 12 when the hormone hCG tapers off.
hCG: The Culprit Behind Morning Sickness
It is believed that the particular hormone responsible for morning sickness is hCG. The hormone hCG is only present in early pregnancy because it triggers the production of progesterone. Once it’s done its job it subsides. Once it subsides, woman feel better.
The body may produce more or less hCG for various reasons. For example, if hCG levels are high, it could be a sign that the mother is carrying twins, but generally it means that hormones are out of balance. High insulin can elevate hCG and make morning sickness worse.
Hormone balance dictates more than just physical comfort; it can determine the outcome of the pregnancy. If hCG is too low, a miscarriage is likely, as hCG is needed to stimulate progesterone and adequate levels of progesterone are required to hold onto the fetus in the 1st trimester. Women with low hCG often don’t experience morning sickness at all. Now, that doesn’t mean that if you aren’t nauseous you’re going to have a miscarriage but if you are at risk, i.e. you’ve had one before, you might want to take it as a warning sign.
(Robert Greene writes extensively about hormone balance. While he recommends a mostly vegetarian diet, which I don’t, he provides a wealth of information about the role of hormones during pregancy.)
Morning Sickness in Evolution
Morning sickness actually has an evolutionary component. Some women even carry a rare gene for a more severe form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG).
As all pregnant women know, nausea makes us more careful about what we eat. This can be very useful in the wild when choosing safe foods. Unfortunately, modern food processing has totally messed up nature’s intentions here.
We were designed to avoid certain vegetable toxins and potentially harmful meats, etc. while the immune system is suppressed and the embryo is vulnerable, but substituting potentially dangerous foods with empty foods is just not a sensible alternative.
Balancing Hormones and Avoiding Morning Sickness
Natural hormone balance starts with a balanced diet – one that is not high in carbohydrates and low in fat and protein. The high glycemic diet recommended by your ubiquitous “expert” causes a surge of insulin. High amounts of insulin circulating through the blood disrupts hormones on many levels. It can lead to PCOS by causing the ovaries to produce too much androgens (male hormones), it can deplete the brain’s neurotransmitters that we need in order to feel good, it can cause a rise in estrogen and a dip in progesterone, it can lead to leptin resistance and weight gain.
Insulin circulating like mad throughout the body causes countless disruptions and imbalances.
And guess what, we pass those hormonal imbalances on to our baby by way of something called hormonal imprinting (I talk a lot more about that in my book).
What to Eat to Prevent or Relieve Morning Sickness
There is no ideal first trimester diet. Every woman has her own aversions and tolerance levels to meat and fat.
The most important thing is to start off eating healthy and STICK TO IT.
The damage that we can do to ourselves when we give in to “cravings” can set a woman up for weeks of discomfort. I hear so often statements like these: “I’m eating Primal and I’m nearly perfect, except for when I just can’t stand the nausea anymore and I eat some bread, but then I’m right back on it again. Now I’ve been eating Primal again for two days but I feel horrible. I don’t know what to do. Primal foods aren’t working!”
Ah hem. If you’re eating bread and other modern snacks every day you’re sabotaging your efforts.
My best advice is to tough it out. The first trimester is full of discomforts. You’ve got some amount of morning sickness. You often feel so tired it’s like you’re drugged (this is the effect of progesterone. When your brain builds up a tolerance to it and the fatigue will subside). Your uterus is gearing up to expand and probably feels majorly crampy. Your nose may be stuffed up, your breasts may be tender, you may be weepy, you may have headaches. Pregnancy takes a little getting used to no matter who you are but what we eat dictates whether these symptoms are unbearable or just a bit of a nuisance.
Eat a diet which consists of veggies, a small amount of fruit if you don’t have fructose malabsorption, healthy fats like olive oil, lard, and pastured butter. Eat meat if you can stomach it, organs are best. Chances are you will hate some meats and not others. I found chicken utterly repulsive but could handle fish just fine. I ate a lot of fish in my first trimester. Eat eggs. Drink plenty of water and green tea. Drink bone broth (even if you don’t eat the chicken). Eat lettuce and carrots and other innocuous foods with lots of nutrients. Don’t let your stomach get empty and eat small amounts of food at a time.
If you are vomiting, avoid foods all together and drink high nutrient liquids like bone broth, fresh squeezed vegetable or orange juice, or do an intermittent fast.
And, drum roll, I know you’re tired but EXERCISE! I guarantee this will help you feel not only more energetic but less nauseous. Exercise helps to balance hormones. Without it you’re setting yourself up for hardship.