Understanding Morning Sickness on a Plant-Based Diet
It’s been quite a while since I have written a health article on my blog. For those of you who follow me on social media you will know that I have been a lot less active on here than what I used to be since being pregnant. Even though I am feeling much better now, I think the three or so months of not being able to cook or blog (or even open my fridge without gagging) has really thrown me off my blogging rhythm and it is difficult to get it back. I have accepted that I will just have to find a slower pace for my blog from now on.
I have had quite a few people write to me expecting me to write a health article on my pregnancy/ morning sickness. The truth is as I was going through it I felt completely un prepared for all the symptoms I experienced. Morning sickness really took me by surprise and I simply could not write anything without trying to get my head around it first. Now that I am well into my second trimester I think I have a better understanding of what I went through and what morning sickness is all about.
I want to take this opportunity to write about morning sickness on a plant based diet. One of the reasons I felt so shocked by my symptoms is that prior to being pregnant I had read a bunch of articles claiming that being plant based will prevent morning sickness all together. The theory behind the articles is that meat and dairy are toxic and morning sickness is your bodies way of preventing those toxins from getting to your very fragile developing baby, particular in the first trimester. This actually made a lot of sense to me since the number one food aversion in all pregnant women is meat! It is logical to conclude that your body is forcing you to avoid the foods that are too toxic for your baby.
Although I didn’t expect to feel fabulous, I really did believe that I would avoid the nausea/ vomiting situation since my diet was predominately whole foods and plant based. I want to stress that this was particularly important to me since I had a little bit of a phobia over nausea and vomiting ever since I had a very bad bought of gastro when I was a little girl. I had watched some friends go through 9 months of torture in the pregnancies, vomiting 14 times a day and never getting a break and I honestly believed that I could not ever deal with that much vomiting! Needless to say I put in a lot of effort in the few months before we started trying to really get my diet to where I wanted it to be, eliminate some more stuff that I didn’t want in my diet and eat as wholesome as possible. I went into it feeing quite confident that all would be fine because I had put in the effort and prepared well. This was not the case.
To be fair, my morning sickness was not as bad as I am making it sound. I only vomited a total of 3 times but I used to gag almost every day, had a funny metallic taste in my mouth for a couple of weeks and was very sensitive to smells. Interestingly food smells didn’t bother me as much as non food related smells like perfume. I had no cravings or aversions and although I was more tired than usual my fatigue was very manageable. I know many women that would have been grateful to get off as easy as I did, but for me it was a very challenging experience, most of which was brought on by my very strong fear of nausea and vomiting and also simply being taken by surprise since I didn’t expect it to hit me the way that it did.
As a food blogger sometimes I think I put a little too much emphasis on food. Although food is extremely important, it is not the be all end all of health. There is still much to say for being plant based while pregnant and is very useful in reducing the risk of other pregnancy related problems like constipation, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and yes even reducing morning sickness in some cases but it cannot be counted on for everything. Now that I have understood the changes that happen in the body during pregnancy I will attempt to explain why being plant based will not save you from morning sickness like many claim.
There is more than one cause of morning sickness
The truth is, there is more than one cause of morning sickness during pregnancy. Diet can certainly be a factor but probably not as much as rising hormone levels and stress. In my case stress was my most obvious trigger. Morning sickness is caused by a combination of diet, stress, rising hormones, environmental toxins, low blood sugar etc. In the first trimester of pregnancy your body is busy building your placenta; a giant organ that feeds and nourishes your growing baby. This puts a lot of stress on your liver which is dealing with processing your now elevated hormone levels and providing the nutrients and energy your body needs to build the placenta and nourish your baby. If you think about it, every time you put your liver under stress, i.e drinking too much you generally respond with nausea and vomiting so it’s no wonder that growing a baby will have the same effect. This is why many professionals claim that morning sickness is a healthy sign of pregnancy and why having no morning sickness has sometimes (but not always) been associated with miscarriage (hormone levels are not high enough to support pregnancy).
I found it interesting that even though eating as healthy and as wholesome as possible is very recommended in pregnancy, during your first trimester most women, including myself, actually feel better when they eat junk! Our increased energy needs means that our bodies crave higher carbohydrate foods. During the first trimester your babies’ nutritional needs are negligible. Your liver has more than enough stores of nutrients for your baby and your body is more concerned with getting the high energy foods that it needs to build your placenta and ward off your fatigue. I used to feel so guilty when the only thing that would settle my nausea was empty carbs like pretzels, potato chips and bread. I would be so worried that I was not feeding my baby the vitamins and minerals that it needed, not realising that during the first trimester your baby already has all that it needs stored up in your liver. The main requirement for your baby to grow is glucose which comes from carbs, so make sure your getting enough and try and stock up on the good carbs like fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole-grains like oats, quinoa, good quality whole grain breads pasta and rice.
Plant based foods are toxic too
Yes meat and dairy are a little toxic and also loaded with hormones that are an extra stress on your liver during your pregnancy which can lead to more nausea, but many healthy plant based foods are toxic for your first trimester too. Many women struggle with sulphur containing foods. The strong smells can really set off the morning sickness. Sulphur is in meat, dairy and eggs but it is also found in green leafy and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli cabbage, greens), coconut, onions and garlic. All perfectly healthy and recommended foods but foods that our bodies don’t deal well during the first trimester. A lot of women find vegetables quite difficult to deal with during the first few months and many aversions that are not meat based will likely fall into foods that contain sulphur in them. Besides sulphur other healthy plant based foods like beans, lentils, chickpeas as well as nuts and seeds have hard to digest compounds in them which your liver treats as toxins. I personally was fine eating vegetables, even the green ones, but felt the need to avoid legumes and some nuts and seeds since they upset my digestion a lot more than usual and led to more nausea. This can be a little concerning on a plant based diet since legumes, nuts and seeds were my prime source of protein, but I just needed to remind myself that the focus is carbohydrates. There is little use for protein during the first few months and your body will make up for it in the months to come.
Don’t allow an empty stomach
For me and the majority or women that experience morning sickness the number one nausea trigger is having an empty stomach. This really has nothing to do with your diet and a lot more to do with just being pregnant. This is where morning sickness first got its name. Your stomach is most empty in the morning after a long nights sleep without eating so when you wake up, your nausea is at its worst. This was definitely the case for me. I woke up almost every morning gagging into my big orange bucket that lived under my bed, but that is not to say that the nausea didn’t return throughout the day, every time I got even the slightest bit hungry. Hence why most people prefer to call it all day sickness. During your first trimester your rising hormones change your digestion. They speed up the time it takes to empty food out of your stomach (creating more stomach acid and bloating which can lead to nausea) and slow down digestion in your gut. This is a very efficient system that ensures your absorbing double the amount of nutrients for your body and your baby but it is also difficult to deal with when your used to getting hungry every 4-6 hours and not every 1.5-2 hours. Hunger seems to sneak up on you out of nowhere and before you know it your feeling nauseous again.
The most important thing to remember is that every one is different, our hormones are different and our babies are different so it is very difficult to determine what pregnancy will be like for you. Considering that in estimated 80% of women will get morning sickness to some degree in their pregnancy, in particular the first trimester, I really found it interesting to find out why our bodies react the way that they do to pregnancy. It also made me realise that even though plant based diets can help morning sickness in some cases there is really no sure way to avoid it all together besides a little bit of luck! Understanding the way the pregnant body works is really helpful in making me feel at ease about whats going on in my body and that all is well with my little baby. I hope this article was able to explain some of the amazing changes that happen in our bodies during pregnancy and how they relate to morning sickness. I also hope that if you were like me and were counting on a plant based diet to save you from morning sickness, this article will help explain why things may not have turned out the way you had hoped. I do want to end by saying that even though first trimester was a bit of a struggle for me, I honestly look back with fond memories. By the end of it I became such a pro at gagging I no longer dreaded it and I loved the fact that I could count on my hormones and liver to grow my little baby boy. Once I hit 16 weeks and the nausea disappeared I had almost forgotten all about it and moved onto loving being pregnant and the little life growing inside me. As an extra bonus morning sickness has also completely cured me of my nausea/ vomiting phobia that I have carried with me for far too long.
This was such a helpful read for me right now, thank you!
Im glad! i have done much more research since then, will hopefully have another morning sickness article on the blog one day.
This was great to read!
I did not expect to be free of morning sickness but did expect it to be better than with my first pregnancy. It has been (including starting two weeks later!).
I’m hating feeling like there’s not much I can eat. I can manage steel cut oats & berries most days and most days get in a smoothie with some spinach, flax, banana and mango. Grapes and apples are okay.
I could eat pasta to start with but now I’ve gone off that?? Though maybe that was when I started to use lentil pasta instead of white, cause I also can’t eat beans without a lot of stomach pain & tightness.
So bread is okay (but even sometimes that is unappealing) and frozen chips on bread I’ve enjoyed a few times! But I don’t want to be eating those foods with oil and high salt. But it’s hard to have much else :/ Peanut butter and banana sandwich is okay sometimes too but normally I mostly avoid bread!
I’m trying to focus on keeping eating as many of the good things as possible because I think having the good is more important than not having the bad… but I still worry the less optimal foods will result in less optimal health for the baby! Do you have any thoughts on this?
Thanks for writing your post!!
I wrote this many years ago and have since done lots more research into morning sickness. I think lowering cortisol/Adrenalin is amazing for morning sickness as it will allow the other hormones to be processed by the liver without causing as much nausea. But other than that I don’t think you need to worry about what your eating first trimester , just eat for nausea relief and once second trimester hits and you feel better you can make up for it. I know women who can’t eat anything the whole pregnancy due to HG and their babies are always fine and on the larger side. It will just mean lots of work to help replenish yourself once you feel better.
I just got through the other side of morning sickness on a plant based diet (of 6 years) and so much of this rings true! I was shocked by how awful I felt. I didn’t do a ton of research into how a plant based diet factored in, but I theorized a couple things including 1) I normally feel so good, healthy, and strong that I think even a small deviation from that registers in a big way–i.e. I’m not used to feeling like crap, so feeling like crap feels even crappier than if you constantly feel low-grade crappy. The other was with the increase in hormones. Plant based diets introduce no additional animal hormones whereas meat and dairy diets are continually deluging your body with animal hormones. It seems likely that the swing in hormones is just morning drastic for plant based eaters during pregnancy. Anyway, thanks for posting this, it was helpful and comforting to read about someone else’s experience on a PBD!
So glad you are on the other side now! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, its definitely something to consider, the swing in hormones can definitely be a factor. I feel like in general we just need much more research on morning sickness and pregnancy and postpartum in general. Still so much we don’t know.