So much is said about special types of exercise that can help close an abdominal separation (diastasis recti) and improve core strength, but there is no mention at all about the importance of diet.

It’s such an important ‘detail’ that I think it’s about time we talked about it.

Our bodies are perpetual motion machines, they break down and they rebuild and repair their tissues on their own – whether we want them to or not, and whether the damage is the result of an injury or not.

We break our bodies down during exercise, stress and even pregnancy and childbirth. If connective tissue is damaged, it needs nutrients to become healthy again. And how do we get nutrients? That’s right – through a carefully balanced diet. To repair this damage, the body’s stores of existing nutrients are depleted and some nutrients have to be supplied from outside because the body cannot produce them.

With the right kind of nutrition, we can stimulate healing and speed up the repair process. If you have a large abdominal separation, it is even more important to manage your diet during pregnancy and especially after giving birth.

In addition to poor nutrition, there are other factors that affect healing after childbirth – these are high stress levels and lack of sleep.

The factors mentioned above affect our hormonal system in a number of ways, including:

Increased cortisol levels The adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol every day. It is known as the stress hormone as it is secreted when you feel emotions such as stress or fear. It is also instrumental in most of the important processes in the body, such as metabolism, the immune system, mental stress and blood coagulation. In addition, it counteracts inflammation. Inflammation is a natural reaction to injury but you don’t want it to last too long! You want to get rid of any inflammation quickly to bring down your cortisol levels. Long-term elevated cortisol levels have a number of negative effects on the body, including a weakened immune system and elevated blood sugar levels.  

Decreased glucosamine production With age, glucose absorption in our cells decreases causing an inability to produce glucosamine on our own. Glucosamine is an ‘amino sugar’ composed of glucose (sugar) and glutamine, an amino acid. Glucosamine is found in cartilage, ligaments and tendons. It is needed for new cartilage to form.

To stop these two problems from preventing the connective tissue from repairing itself, it’s important to follow a suitable exercise programme, think about what your diet consists of, but also to take care of your sleep and stress levels.

Diastasis recti occurs as a result of a stretched linea alba, the fibrous structure that holds your six-pack together. As well as holding your six-pack together, the linea alba holds the other abdominal muscles, tendons and fasciae in your stomach together. Stomach muscles such as abdominal obliques and the transverse abdominis attach to the linea alba. And don’t forget your pelvic floor, which also stretches during pregnancy and particularly during childbirth.

The linea alba – like the rest of the body’s connective tissue – is made up of collagen and elastin (elastin is a protein in connective tissue that is elastic and allows many types of tissue in the body to regain their shape after being stretched. Elastin is what makes your skin return to its normal position after being pinched or squeezed).

What you want to achieve with your diet is to help your body to produce collagen, which helps to restore your skin’s elasticity. As the connective tissue gets stronger – it gets thicker. When stretched, it becomes thinner and weaker.

Let’s discuss the specific foods and supplements that can help you with the healing of diastasis recti and your pelvic floor – collagen, gelatine and protein. We humans need to eat animal collagen (or gelatine) to build up our own collagen after childbirth.

Eating foods high in collagen can help us to successfully repair and rebuild our damaged tissue.

Good sources of lysine and proline (amino acids that build collagen) are meat, chicken, fish and eggs.

You can obtain collagen by drinking stock made from bones or making soups from this type of stock. Bone stock is by far the best source of collagen! It contains gelatine, glucosamine and hyaluronic acid – which are essential for building collagen. To get as much gelatine as possible, remember to buy bones with the joint still attached.

You can also buy gelatine supplements in health food shops and add them to your protein drinks, or mix them with plain water.

The building blocks of different types of protein are amino acids. Humans can build the proteins we need, but there are ten ‘essential’ amino acids that must be supplied by what we eat – and nine of these essential amino acids are found in gelatine. Protein plays a major role in tissue repair so include some high-quality protein as part of every meal. You can find protein in meat, fish, cottage cheese and quark, nuts and eggs. 

Hyaluronic acid

  • This is a sugar molecule found in the body to bind water in the skin, cartilage, joint fluid, bone membrane tissue, eyes and umbilical cord.
  • The skin’s connective tissue is made up of fibres and between them there is a gel matrix, which is largely made up of hyaluronic acid. It fills the space between collagen and elastin threads, contributing to the skin’s firmness and elasticity.
  • A normal person weighing 70 kg has about 15 grams of hyaluronic acid in their body.
  • With ageing and UV exposure, production decreases and elderly people often have no hyaluronic acid left in their dermis. (Source:

You can get hyaluronic acid from sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes and, again, in bone stock.

But what about if you’re a vegetarian or vegan? Are you doomed? No, of course not. 

Humans are omnivores. We are able to regenerate collagen more efficiently from animal protein sources, especially from the skin, cartilage and bones of other animals (i.e. gelatine). But we also have the capacity to build collagen from plant sources – it’s just a matter of how efficiently the plant protein can be absorbed by the body. If you’re a healthy vegetarian or vegan, and you’re interested in helping your abdomen and pelvic floor to recover after childbirth, eat plenty of plant protein and keep an eye on your digestion to ensure that you are absorbing that protein. Good sources are nuts, beans, quinoa, etc.

Vegetarian alternatives to gelatine are found in seaweed (e.g. agar-agar). 

Vitamin C We’ve now looked at what helps you rebuild collagen, but there are a few other little tricks to bear in mind.

To optimise collagen build-up, we need to add vitamin C.

Vitamin C promotes the healing of connective tissue and all other soft tissue, as it promotes the production of elastin, which is essential in the building process. Foods that contain vitamin C include kiwis, papayas, strawberries, pineapples, oranges, kale, cabbage, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and broccoli. 

In addition, vitamin C strengthens capillary walls, which in turn reduces inflammation, helps bruising to fade and reduces bleeding. This is something to remember immediately after childbirth, especially if you’ve experienced tearing.

Zinc Zinc is also a powerhouse when it comes to connective tissue repair. You can get zinc from oysters, prawns, scallops, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, red meat, beans, nuts, whole grain products and dairy products.

Iron The body’s need for oxygen increases with injury. Iron is the ‘transport vehicle’ that delivers oxygen to the body’s cells. You can get iron from beef, broccoli, apricots and bread made with iodised salt. 

Blood circulation Blood circulation is necessary for transporting oxygen, nutrients and antibodies. Blood also plays an important role in the removal of bacteria and foreign objects. The better the blood supply, the more effective the healing process. This is where appropriate abdominal exercises come into play, increasing blood flow to the connective tissue.

Other information:

The ‘Nutrition for Soft Tissue Recovery’ study suggests that the following vitamins are needed for soft tissue repair: vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E and K. It also lists the following minerals as necessary for the process: calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron, zinc, selenium, manganese and copper. There is also a similar study here.

Remember that any food that stresses your body (aka junk food) prevents your body from healing. Sugar, alcohol and fast carbohydrates are all examples of such foods!

So is it too late to start thinking along these lines if you gave birth a while ago?

I’m often asked whether it’s possible to do anything about loose stomach skin and whether exercise helps or whether it’s too late to close an abdominal separation if someone gave birth a while ago. No, it’s not too late, but exercise isn’t the only thing that can help (many people seem to have particular faith in exercise, for some reason).

There are, however, some factors that might make the healing process take longer:

  1. How long have you been overweight? Naturally, this matters.
  2. How many times have you been on a diet? By this I mean how many times have you gained and lost weight rapidly? This affects your skin’s elasticity. Think about a balloon. Imagine you inflate it, then deflate it. How would the balloon look?  Now imagine you inflate it again – it would be easier to blow up this time, wouldn’t it? Then imagine you deflate it again … and so on. The same goes for your skin – it becomes less and less elastic.
  3. How old are you? The older you are, the longer it takes for your skin to recover. Generally, connective tissue heals faster and better in younger people – they have a better blood supply and a faster metabolism that can process all the nutrients more quickly.
  4. Genes Naturally, our genes influence the quality of our skin. What is your mother’s skin like? Does she look younger or older than her real age?