‘I grow humans, what’s your superpower?’… Jokes aside, growing a human is hard work and can take its toll on your body. During this time it’s incredibly important to pay close attention to what you eat as it will literally provide the building blocks for your child’s growth and development.
The adage of ‘eating for two’ has long been debunked, but what we do know is that certain nutrient needs are definitely increased during this time. With this in mind, as a mum-to-be, you may be on the lookout for foods that are nutrient powerhouses, enter hemp seeds.
First things first: What are hemp seeds (aka hemp hearts)?
Hemp seeds/ hemp hearts are edible seeds originating from the hemp plant which can be eaten raw or can be processed into a variety of products like oil, milk and cheese alternatives and even vegan protein powders. This plant is related to the cannabis plant, but unlike it’s cousin cannabis, it doesn’t contain much THC (more on this later).
Let’s explore the pros and cons of eating hemp seeds during pregnancy to understand if they are a good fit for you.
Hemp seeds are full of high quality protein
When you are pregnant, your protein needs increase. To give you an idea of how much, an average woman over the age of 19 years needs approximately 46g/ d and during pregnancy, this need jumps all the way up to 71g/ d!
The additional protein supports growth and development of a variety of tissues in both the mum and baby and reaches its peak in the third trimester.
Hemp seeds are quite special as they are one of the few plant based foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that our bodies are unable to make on their own, and thus we need to take them in as part of our diet. Proteins that have this type of profile are known as ‘complete’ proteins.
This means that when you eat hemp seeds, you are providing your body with all the amino acids it needs and thus don’t have to think about or worry that you are missing out on anything, which is great for those following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Can help maintain your blood pressure
Unfortunately, high blood pressure is quite common in pregnancy. It needs to be monitored because it can develop into a life threatening condition for both mom and baby known as preeclampsia. Having high blood pressure can also cause other complications like preterm delivery, low-birth weight and even maternal stroke.
Hemp seeds are particularly high in the amino acid arginine. Arginine turns into a substance called Nitric Oxide (NO). NO helps to dilate your arteries and veins, which contributes to maintaining normal blood pressure.
So eating hemp seeds in combination with a healthy diet and lifestyle modifications like limiting excessive salt intake and exercising, can help regulate your blood pressure (aka, the silent killer).
Also good for regulating blood sugar levels
Gestational diabetes (or pregnancy related diabetes) is also quite a common condition and is diagnosed in up to 10% of all pregnant women.
Those at a higher risk include older mum’s (> 35 years) and those with a high pre-pregnancy BMI (> 25kg/m2). High blood sugars can lead to complications like macrosomia when the baby weighs more than 4,2kg at birth), delivery complications (such as an increased rate for caesarean sections) and even an increased risk for the baby being admitted to the neonatal ICU. In addition to these short term risks, in the long term, the mum is also more likely to develop type-2 diabetes and all its related complications if it is not controlled.
Fat, fibre and protein (which are all present in hemp seeds), help to reduce the blood sugar spikes that we experience when eating carbohydrate rich foods. The more controlled these spikes, the fewer complications a gestational diabetic mum will experience (Wang and Xiong, 2019; Leonard et al., 2020).
Try adding hemp seeds to your oats, yoghurt and smoothies or even to your salad at lunch.
They’re loaded with omega 3 fatty acids
Most pregnant women don’t eat enough omega 3 fatty acids. This is a problem, because we know that they are critical during pregnancy because they play a significant role in foetal eye and brain development.
The benefits don’t stop there and omega 3 may even impact length of gestation and birth weight thus protecting against preterm birth and low birth weight respectively and may also protect against preeclampsia.
Hemp seeds are high in omega-3, more specifically ALA or alpha-linolenic acid. In addition to this, they also have a desirable ratio of 3: 1 of omega-6 to omega-3. This specific ratio ensures that there is sufficient intake of both essential fatty acids (reducing the risk for deficiency) while promoting the anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3 over the proinflammatory effects of omega 6.
High in micronutrients needed when pregnant or breastfeeding
From a micronutrient point of view, hemp seeds are high in magnesium, iron and folate. Magnesium assists in immune, muscle, and nerve function and a magnesium deficiency during pregnancy may increase the risk of chronic hypertension and premature labour.
A woman’s iron needs increase significantly during pregnancy and sadly, most women go into their pregnancies already in an iron deficient state. If not corrected, it can lead to preterm birth and a low birth weight baby. After giving birth, having low iron stores can also lead to reduced milk production and even contribute to postnatal depression.
Last, but certainly not least, folate is one of the most vital micronutrients needed in pregnancy. Not only does it help to protect against neural tube defects like spina bifida, but it also plays a role in DNA synthesis, red blood cell production as well as foetal growth and development.
Unfortunately contains anti-nutrients like phytic acid
Plant seeds contain phytic acid. It is the main organic form of phosphorus and is also known as an ‘anti-nutrient’ because it impairs the absorption of iron, zinc and calcium.
When you’re pregnant, your micronutrient requirements increase and a reduced absorption of these key nutrients can lead to unwanted nutrient deficiencies. Micronutrient deficiencies can affect both mum and baby negatively and can lead to a host of symptoms and even various diseases further down the line through a process known as foetal programming.
Eating too much may cause diarrhoea
Up to 50% of the hemp seed is made up of fat. Some people are quite sensitive to sudden, large increases of fat in their diet and their bodies react by having a bout of mild diarrhoea. Diarrhoea can be a problem during pregnancy because nutrient needs are increased and if you are losing nutrients through side effects like vomiting or diarrhoea, you may need to reassess your intake.
Luckily the diarrhoea is not usually severe and is often short lived. This doesn’t mean that you can’t eat hemp seeds, it just means that you need to start slowly and let your body get used to this new addition.
May have an anticoagulant effect
As we mentioned before, hemp seeds are high in the fatty acid ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) which are a form of omega 3 fatty acids. The high ALA content inhibits platelet formation and interacts with anticoagulant medications, causing a higher risk of bleeding.
Increased risk of bleeding can be particularly detrimental to a pregnant woman, especially during delivery. Luckily, this type of side effect has only been reported with very high intakes of hemp seeds, and as a general rule of thumb all foods should be eaten in moderation with hemp seeds not being an exception.
Might contain small traces of THC
The hemp plant is related to the cannabis plant and because of this, many people falsely assume that it too has psychoactive effects (i.e. the ‘high’ sensation felt when consuming or smoking cannabis). This ‘high’ effect is produced by consuming a compound called THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Hemp and hemp seeds contain very little naturally occurring THC, with the majority being found in the flowers, leaves and stem, not the seeds. Miniscule amounts of THC can be transferred to the seeds through contact, but the quantities are so low that it doesn’t raise concerns for any group, including mum’s who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The final verdict: Should we eat hemp seeds during pregnancy?
Due to their nutrient density, including hemp seeds in your diet while you are pregnant can significantly improve the nutritional profile of your regular diet. What’s important to bear in mind is that ‘Too much of a good thing can be bad’, and this rings true when it comes to hemp seeds. As we have learned, most of the negative side effects are from consuming large amounts.
As with any nuts and seeds, small quantities in a healthful diet combined with other health enhancing activities like exercise and stress reduction can lead to a healthy and happy pregnancy.
What can I do to reduce my stress during pregnancy?
While stress is normal, too much can be harmful for both mum and baby. Our program ‘Blessed: Hypnobirthing and Meditation for a Positive Birth’ is an easy to use, iPhone app that has been created by a certified hypnotherapist with extensive hypnobirthing experience. It can be used to promote a restful sleep, reduce stress through guided mediation and will even help coach you through birthing contractions. All these aspects work together to enhance your pregnancy experience and prepare you for a positive birth.