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How Moms Can Live Healthy Lives

Working mom with two kids

I'm a 37-year-old mother of three who practices yoga several times a week. Overall, I considered myself in good health until I had my first physical in five long years. The news wasn't good. Low blood sugar. High cholesterol. Looking back, it shouldn't have surprised me. The fact is, I spend lots of time in the doctor's office for my kids' various issues, but when it comes to my own health, well, that's another story.

Think about it: When you're pregnant, you make sure you and baby-to-be are well, you deliver, return for a postpartum checkup, and then immerse yourself in mothering. There are no well-mommy visits, but perhaps there should be. Physically, new mothers in particular are vulnerable to all types of illnesses.

And all the emotional stresses of being the primary caregiver of a new little life doesn't make things any easier. If you're one of the many new moms whose health is the last thing on her to-do list, read on to find out why you should make it a priority now.

Ask any mother if she ever skipped a well-baby visit for her child. The answer for 99 percent is a resounding no. The fact is, kids come first. That's certainly the case for Jody Kramer, a mother of three who lives in Trumbull, Connecticut. "Between chauffeuring everyone around and refereeing their bickering, I don't have a second to breathe," she says. Nor did she have a second to visit the doctor when severe jaw pain set in. Instead, she popped ibuprofen -- a lot of it.

"I wound up developing a gastric ulcer from all the Motrin, and I was diagnosed with temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ), where all the pain was coming from." The lesson here is twofold: Mothers are willing to overlook their own symptoms to care for their children, and letting symptoms slide can lead to more than one illness down the road. "If you ignore symptoms of depletion -- physical or emotional -- your chances of developing a more serious health problem can rise," says Beth McDougall, MD, a physician in private practice in Mill Valley, California.

But what compounds matters even more is the fact that moms put babies first long before they give birth. Pregnancy itself may put some women at a health disadvantage, according to Iffath Hoskins, MD, an ob-gyn and executive director of women's services at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia. "During pregnancy, there's a preferential transfer of nutrients through the placenta to the fetus," she says. Because baby gets first dibs, there will be a finite amount of substances -- iron, calcium, and other nutrients -- left over for Mom on a daily basis.

If a pregnant woman doesn't replenish her system with key nutrients through diet and a prenatal vitamin, she can eventually get run down. And if she breastfeeds, the nutritional deficits will worsen. The most common deficits include iron and folic acid, resulting in anemia; zinc, which weakens the immune system; and calcium, causing brittle bones. The nutritional picture is even bleaker if a woman breastfeeds for a long time or has short spaces between pregnancies.

And nutritional deficits don't just make you feel run down; a body running on scant nutritional fuel is more susceptible to viral infections such as colds, flus, and stomach bugs. To complicate matters further, little kids, particularly those in daycare, toddler programs, or preschool, are especially susceptible to all sorts of bugs.

Add these two factors together, throw in sleep deprivation, and you wind up with a weakened immune system unable to fend off every bug that passes through. Just ask Kathy Azevedo of Livermore, California. "Before having kids, I never got sick," she says. "Ever since my second, I get a cold each time my kids do -- only mine are worse and last longer."

Unfortunately, a frequent runny nose isn't the only calling card of new motherhood. Below, some of the most common new-mom health woes, how to spot them, and their treatments. Some are mild, some are more serious, but all make you feel pretty lousy, which warrants attention from a doctor.

  • Hypothyroid: This illness occurs when your thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that regulates everything from your heart rate to your metabolism, doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone. It can be tough for new moms to get treatment for this disease because depression, fatigue, and hair loss -- primary symptoms -- are par for the course in early motherhood. It's not unusual for the thyroid to go haywire postpartum because pregnancy and birth cause extreme hormonal shifts, "which can cause the thyroid to dysregulate," says Dr. McDougall.

    Treatment is usually a synthetic version of the hormone you're missing taken by pill once a day. Fortunately, the medication starts working immediately. Michelle Hubertus of Short Hills, New Jersey, who was diagnosed with the disorder six months after she gave birth, can attest. "As soon as I started taking the medication I lost 10 pounds and got my health under control," she says.
  • Gallstones: The gallbladder is a small sac that stores and concentrates bile, a substance used to digest fats. Gallstones occur when bile, cholesterol, and other substances form hard little crystals that can cause pain, gallbladder inflammation, and in some cases, digestive problems. They're fairly common after pregnancy and usually occur within the first three months after birth, says Dr. McDougall. Pregnancy hormones slow down your gallbladder's output, causing a backup of cholesterol, which can lead to the formation of the stones. If your gallbladder is constantly inflamed from the stones, treatment is surgical removal. Milder cases are usually closely monitored.
  • Stress-Related Illnesses: There are a number of very real illnesses affecting new moms that fall into a medical chicken-or-egg quandary. They're at their worst when a person is stressed, but it's unclear whether or not stress is the root of their cause. Irritable bowel syndrome, which causes digestive troubles, TMJ, which Jody Kramer suffers from, and insomnia are just a few. The reason for the wide variety? "Everyone manifests stress differently: Some people hold tension in their jaw, some take it out in their sleep," says Dr. McDougall.

    Some experts feel that these types of problems coupled with feeling drained spawns an entirely new syndrome worthy of attention and treatment, called Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS). Rick Hanson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in San Rafael, California who is studying this phenomenon, estimates that one in 10 women will go through DMS. "Like premenstrual syndrome, each woman who is depleted will experience a different set of symptoms," says Dr. Hanson. "In addition to nutritional deficits, which are always present, she will have some combination of physical and emotional symptoms." Treatment-wise, a combination of medical intervention, therapy, and lifestyle changes can help.

Experts agree that you can prevent yourself from reaching rock bottom. They suggest following these tips:

  • Make doctor's visits a priority. Take 15 minutes and schedule your yearly physical, dental checkup, ob-gyn exam, and other screenings all at once, write them in your calendar, and ask for a confirmation call before the appointment. You're less likely to miss them if they're already scheduled and you get a reminder. And if a symptom starts bothering you, make a doctor's appointment for the next day. If it goes away you can cancel, but have the appointment as an ace in the hole.
  • Examine your diet. Record everything you eat, including prenatal vitamins, before your annual checkup, and if you have questions about your diet or you're feeling run down, consult your doctor or request a referral for a dietitian. Eating regular meals, focusing on nutrient-rich produce, drinking calcium-rich beverages, and choosing whole foods over processed ones are smart moves, says dietitian Susan Moores of St. Paul, Minnesota, as are cutting down on sugary treats and soda.
  • Make exercise an integral part of your day. It builds your immune system and releases endorphins, natural mood elevators. If you can't get to a gym every day, create a routine that's doable for you: Do an exercise video after your kids are asleep, make extra trips up and down your stairs, or park your car at the far end of the lot when you go to the market to add extra steps.
  • Get a good night's sleep. Sleep is when your body heals and repairs damage, so a stressed-out system needs it badly. If you have a newborn, set up a plan with your spouse so you get some solid sleep at night. If you're breastfeeding, pump so your spouse can give baby his 3 a.m. bottle every other night.
  • Take time out to feed your soul. Do something just for you -- read or take a bath -- to remind yourself there's a world out there separate from your house and kids. Jody Kramer is mad about mahjongg. "Even though I only play once a week, it's a great stress reliever for me," she says. "It's time for me, with my girlfriends, with no interruptions. I don't care if I win, but I always laugh!"
  • Share the load. Divvy up housework and childrearing tasks so no one is stressed and overwhelmed. Dana Klein of Brooklyn, New York, and her husband Bill have found a system that works; he does all the cooking, she does the housework, and the rest is split down the middle. "It's a huge relief to have whole categories of stuff I don't have to worry about, and that no one's overloaded," she says. Which is the ultimate goal of this action plan: if you feel that your life has some semblance of control, you'll take care of yourself and be a better partner and mother.

Jennifer Lang is a freelance writer in White Plains, New York, and has three kids.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2004.