Needed Co-Founder Julie Sawaya on Supporting Your Birthing Body
We love to share stories from Origin patients and from female founders on a mission to help birthing people feel better in their bodies, so we jumped at the chance to interview Julie Sawaya, co-founder of the innovative prenatal supplement company Needed.
Julie has been coming to Origin for postpartum pelvic floor PT and is here to share some insights on providing your body with the nutrition, hydration, and human support you need to thrive before, during, and after pregnancy. Whether we’re talking supplements or medical care, she’s tired of being offered the “bare minimum.” We couldn’t agree more.
You have a two-year-old and a baby on the way. What was your first experience with childbirth like?
Julie: My daughter was born in July 2020, in the midst of the first wave of COVID and all the anxiety that came with it. Because of that, my birth and postpartum plans shifted a lot. At 33 weeks pregnant, I decided to change plans and deliver at home with a midwife because of the ever-changing hospital policies around who would be allowed at my birth (my doula and husband included). This ended up being such a blessing in disguise.
For me, one of the best aspects of midwifery care was the in-home postpartum visits to check in on me and baby. Even though I was not able to get the support I was planning on from a postpartum doula and our extended families due to COVID concerns, the extra help really set the tone for an empowering postpartum experience.
I’m planning for another home birth with this pregnancy, and am looking forward to also getting support from a postpartum doula and family this time around.
Did you have any childbirth injuries that you feel comfortable sharing? If so, what has the healing process been like for you?
Julie: I delivered my daughter in a birthing pool, and had a pretty short labor including the pushing stage (and a skilled midwife applying perineal counterpressure). But I did still end up with a first-degree tear that didn’t require stitches, but left me feeling weakness and discomfort in my pelvic floor for many months. I continued to have some discomfort during sex up until this pregnancy.
One of my biggest regrets of postpartum is that I didn’t work on restoring my pelvic floor health sooner!
One of my biggest regrets of postpartum is that I didn’t work on restoring my pelvic floor health sooner! About midway through this pregnancy, I found Origin’s West LA location and started working on strengthening my pelvic floor and softening the scar tissue from my previous birth injury. It has been a huge huge relief! I plan to return to Origin as soon as I am cleared at 6 weeks postpartum.
How have your feelings about your body changed throughout the massive transformations of pregnancy, postpartum, and now pregnancy again?
Julie: Before my first pregnancy, I was anxious about how the changes in my body would impact my emotional well-being. I’ve always been very physically attuned to my body and conscious of how my physical well-being impacts my mental and emotional health, so it was a bit nerve-wracking to not be in control of the changes. But after giving birth to my daughter, I felt profoundly proud of and grateful to my body in a way that I never anticipated.
But then my confidence in my body was shaken last fall when I experienced a pregnancy loss at 11 weeks gestation. I am really grateful that I had such a positive first pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding journey to fall back on as reminders that my body is healthy and capable. But it was still such a difficult emotional experience. My support team (including my midwife, therapist, and postpartum loss doula) was key in helping me to trust in my body again.
What’s one thing you know now about pregnancy or postpartum that you wish you knew sooner?
Julie: To not be afraid to invest time and resources in your own well-being, preconception, during pregnancy, and especially postpartum. It gets increasingly hard to do so with a baby or older child to care for. But the investment in your well-being will pay off for years to come (not only for you but for your family or future family as well). This is such a tender time when a lot of extra support and resources are needed. We aren’t meant to navigate this all alone, so ask for and seek out help!
This is such a tender time when a lot of extra support and resources are needed. We aren’t meant to navigate this all alone.
What has surprised you most about your pregnant or postpartum body?
Julie: One of the ways my body has most surprised me is in its ability to support breastfeeding my toddler throughout this pregnancy. Our bodies are designed to prioritize the needs of a developing baby (or nursing toddler) ahead of our own. This means if there aren’t enough nutrients to go around, we as pregnant people are the ones left depleted. So, I’ve been extra intentional about making sure I am properly nourished and hydrated with our Complete Plan and Hydration Support.
For many of us, the first time we consider the “standard of care” for pregnant people is when we find out what our health insurance company does and doesn’t cover. It can be eye-opening! What was that experience like for you?
Julie: I grew up with a dad who was an MD and a mom who was a postpartum RN, so there was a lot of implied trust in the standard of care model. But from a young age, it was clear to me that the system had its shortcomings. My dad was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when I was 5, and he has struggled with his health throughout my life. The realization that nutrition and other lifestyle modifications that were overlooked could have helped him lit a fire in me to optimize my own health and empower others in their health journeys.
Fast forward to 2017 when we started Needed, my co-founder Ryan (a fellow nutrition nerd!) and I couldn’t help but notice how many of our friends who were in the perinatal stage were struggling. From fertility challenges to pregnancy, nausea, or gestational diabetes, or difficulty healing postpartum, their needs weren’t being fully met by the standard of care model. We decided to hone in on the nutritional aspects of this problem, but there are many ways in which women are underserved at this life stage.
After experiencing birth and postpartum, I’ve been even more intentional about seeking out complementary care as I prepare to give birth to my second daughter this fall. This has includes co-care with a midwife and OBGYN and regular pelvic floor therapy at Origin (I SO wish I had begun this after my first birth vs waiting until a subsequent pregnancy).
Given the impact of prenatal nutrition on both mother and baby’s health, you’d think seeing a nutritionist would also be standard care during pregnancy. Why is nutrition still just a side note in maternal care?
Julie: We know from the available clinical research, in-practice experience, and traditional wisdom how vitally important nutrition is to a healthy perinatal journey. But, the reality is that most women in the US seek out care from a medical doctor, and nutrition is not part of the standard MD curriculum. The average facetime with an OBGYN during a prenatal appointment is 7 minutes, hardly long enough time to cover even the basics of nutrition, let alone the nuances. I say this with huge respect for the medical profession, including as the daughter and sister of MDs. The system is what is flawed, not the care providers.
In an ideal scenario, OBs would practice alongside Registered Dietitians.
In an ideal scenario, OBs would practice alongside Registered Dietitians (RDs) or other highly trained nutrition experts like Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) or nutritionists. But this is rarely the case.
At Needed, we fully recognize that most pregnant patients don’t have access to a nutrition expert. That’s why we are so committed to being a trusted (free!) resource for nutrition information, backed by a collective of perinatal nutrition and health experts that represent complete care.
There are rows of prenatal vitamins available at every grocery store and pharmacy, yet you clearly saw a glaring gap. What was missing?
Julie: We started Needed out of the realization that 97% of women in this life stage take a prenatal vitamin, yet 95% have nutritional deficiencies. There are countless prenatal vitamins on the market, but most of them contain only a bare minimum amount of nutrition. They’re not designed to deliver optimal nourishment.
97% of women in this life stage take a prenatal vitamin, yet 95% have nutritional deficiencies.
It’s common to see very low dosing and poorly absorbed nutrient forms–not to mention critical nutrients like Choline that get left out entirely because they won’t fit into 1 or 2 capsules.
The vast majority of the prenatal vitamins on the market are not formulated from the ground up, but instead they are “whitelabeled” generic formulas sold in branded packaging. Pretty marketing wasn’t going to close the nutrient deficiency gap–a fundamentally better product was needed!
We created our prenatal vitamin (and the other supplements we offer) to meet optimal nutritional needs. To do so, we spent nearly 3 years reviewing every single nutrient that’s needed alongside a group of perinatal nutrition experts that regularly test women’s nutrient status to know what’s needed. We vetted every single ingredient supplier, and hand-selected every dosage. We also go above and beyond in our quality review, including third-party testing every ingredient and finished product through independent labs.
What are some myths about prenatal and postpartum supplements that you’d love to dispel?
Julie: Three of the most common myths are: i) that all you need is a multivitamin to meet your needs, ii) that a prenatal vitamin is only intended for the 9 months of pregnancy, and iii) that only women need to take a prenatal!
When you are conceiving, growing, and nourishing a baby, your body requires a lot more than just vitamins and minerals to thrive. Protein, hydration, healthy fat (like Omega-3s), and overall caloric requirements during pregnancy are far above baseline needs. Additionally, the maternal microbiome is directly linked to that of a developing baby, and food alone isn’t enough to optimally support the gut, skin, and vaginal microbiomes. We offer targeted nutritional support for all of this and more, because it’s all needed at such a nutritionally-demanding lifestage.
When you are conceiving, growing, and nourishing a baby, your body requires a lot more than just vitamins and minerals to thrive.
Secondly, a prenatal vitamin is NOT just for pregnancy (it’s a big misnomer). Nutrition is so important in the preconception phase to support hormone balance, egg health, and so that you start out pregnancy with an abundance of nutrient reserves. When your body is optimally nourished before pregnancy, you are more likely to feel well all throughout pregnancy. Many women really struggle to take their prenatal vitamins and eat an abundantly nourishing diet, especially if they suffer from pregnancy nausea. Stocking up on nutrients before the first trimester is a smart way to ensure your body and baby have plenty of nutrients to draw upon.
In the postpartum period and while breastfeeding, nutrient requirements are at their highest level. You need even more nutrition at this stage than while pregnant, yet taking a prenatal vitamin can be an afterthought. We really emphasize nourishing yourself optimally during this stage to support your healing, mood, overall recovery, breastmilk nutrition, and your future fertility/hormone balance.
Finally, the role of men’s nutrition in the perinatal stage. Yes, men do need to take prenatal vitamins! Sperm contribute 50% of a baby’s DNA, and between 30-50% of known causes of infertility and pregnancy loss. During the ~100 days that it takes sperm to mature, they are highly susceptible to lifestyle factors like nutrition, environmental toxins, stress, and more. Supporting men’s health with high quality nutrition is a no-brainer, not only for fertility and pregnancy outcomes, but also because parenting is a lifelong commitment, and an optimally-nourished dad is needed.