For those of us who are hormonally sensitive postpartum depression can be a real concern once you’re pregnant. If you’ve experienced depression before, as part of hormonal imbalance issues like PCOS or PMS, then it can be worrying to know that you might be more susceptible to depression as part of the hormonal shifts post-birth – I know this worried me.
I had experienced depression as part of my PCOS and knew I would have to be extra-vigilant to keep the baby blues at bay for myself. I had additional concern because my own mom suffered from clinical postpartum depression after her third and final pregnancy.
Clinical postpartum depression is defined as a new mother having feelings of harm for herself or her child, and this is the case for many sufferers and requires medical intervention. For many other women, however, who do not fit the above definition, they experience the mood altering effects of rapid, ongoing, and long term hormonal fluctuations which results in not feeling like yourself, having mood swings, and low energy – in effect it’s mild depression, postpartum.
This is a less obvious mild and functional form of depression, which is not classic or clinical postpartum depression, and can linger long after the official postpartum phase has ended, affecting a woman for years. The combination of hormone changes, changes in sleep, and not eating properly for your new mom life, can leave you vulnerable and become something more permanent if self care is compromised. I get how challenging it is to fit it all into your intense schedule.
After the postpartum phase is considered over however, you would then just be categorized as having depression or anxiety, and perhaps even be recommended medication. I think it’s valuable to see the root cause of this situation you may find yourself in so you can address it properly – with food and lifestyle changes.
While there is a drop in hormone levels postpartum, combined with hormonally disruptive sleep schedules that come with a new baby, there are steps you can take the support your health and safeguard against depression during this time.
With new understandings about mental health, from pioneers like my colleague Dr. Kelly Brogan, with her book, A Mind of Your Own, we know that feeding your brain can keep it performing optimally and protects your mood balance.
Being aware that you might be susceptible is important, as is having a handle on your hormonal imbalance issues before you even decide to conceive. I recommend to my clients to prep for pregnancy at least a few months (ideally a year) prior to trying to get pregnant if they are already dealing with irregular cycles, problem periods and other hormonal health issues. That said, if you are pregnant reading this and concerned about postpartum depression there are still actions you can take once baby is born. Going into a pregnancy hormonally healthy without unresolved health issues is ideal, but not absolutely essential for avoiding postpartum depression.
Anyone can be at risk from depression postpartum. By leveraging good functional nutrition basics, you can give yourself all the support possible to keep yourself balanced during this huge transition.
The causes of depression postpartum
Clinical postpartum depression can be triggered by the rapid hormonal fluctuations post pregnancy and you should seek medical support if you need help.
Mild depression postpartum also needs support and I think it’s important to look at all of the functional causes that might make this worse for you and to think about ways you can be proactive about avoiding as many of these as possible.
- There is a rapid drop in estrogen in the first few months after birth which affects mood, verbal skills, and even socializing habits.
- New moms are always coping with sleep deficiency, which leads to imbalance in the adrenal gland and thyroid hormone levels.
- New moms are often micronutrient deficient. Making a tiny person extracts as much nutrients from your body as physically possible. If you have a history of dieting, restriction of calories or food groups, then you may already start your pregnancy state with a deficiency – leading to higher levels of deficiency postpartum. This is not good for the baby or you. Low levels of micronutrients contribute to low hormone levels too.
- Prolonged breastfeeding keeps estrogen levels low and can dramatically impact your mood. Stopping breastfeeding can create an additional hormone and therefore mood shift and is best done slowly over 2-3 months.
- Many new moms stop their prenatal supplement routine too soon, even though you need to continue this into (and well past) the 4th trimester.
- Many women feel they want all their pregnancies close together – especially if they’re starting in their mid-30s, in order to “get it all out of the way”, to have siblings close in age, or capitalize on their fertile years. If your next pregnancy and birth is very close to the prior, you must be even more vigilant about nourishing your body, restoring micronutrient levels, and not focusing on postpartum dieting to lose baby weight, but prepping your body for another request to 3D print a new tiny human!
- There are many environmental factors that can be at play with postpartum depression. A not very supportive spouse, lack of childcare, and financial strain. Birth and a new baby can trigger anxiety that feels very primitive and primal – it’s more intense because you badly want to do right by your child. It can make for a very emotionally charged time. And it’s not always easy to tackle what can be an isolating experience if you’re not surrounded by a supportive community of friends and family who are truly there for you.
It’s harder to maintain hormonal balance when grappling with a new schedule, but it’s not impossible. It takes awareness of what your body needs to maintain peak physical and mental health. And of course, we all desire to be as healthy as we can in order to take care of a new baby, so this can be a great motivator in making the necessary commitments to self care.
It’s also important to be aware that clinical and mild postpartum depression doesn’t always happen the day you get home from the hospital, it can be after 3 months or even later. That’s why during the 4th trimester it’s so important to take care of yourself as much as your baby. If you’re breastfeeding it’s even more crucial that you eat well and take care of your health, for as long as you’re breastfeeding and for several months beyond.
What to eat postpartum to avoid depression
After the birth of my daughter I concentrated on eating a diet with high nutrient density, a lot, and frequently. This is not the time to crash diet or worry about baby weight. Eat well and the pounds will fall away naturally. They did for me – I lost the 50 lbs. I had gained in a few months, without depriving myself in a way that would have only triggered hormonal imbalance.
This is a sample of how I ate during my 4th trimester and beyond, as I continued breastfeeding. Note that lots of snacking and small meals throughout the day are excellent between nursing, napping, and recovering from labor and delivery.
Breakfast – Steel cut oats with black sesame seeds, coconut oil, flax, cinnamon, goji berries
Snack – 2 eggs scrambled in coconut oil with turmeric
Lunch – Salmon and quinoa with lentils and fermented sauerkraut
Snack – Avocado on black rice bread
Dinner – Bison/lamb/beef burger with green beans and sweet potato baked ‘fries’
Snack – 2 Dates or dried figs with 3 Squares Dark Chocolate with Mother’s Milk Tea
Snack – Macaroon or gluten-free llactation cookie
Snack – Bone Broth with black rice bread and chicken liver pate
Eating this way supports each of the areas of health that can be off-balance post-birth:
– your micronutrient levels
– your microbiome
– your hormone production
My specific FLO protocol for the postpartum phase emphasizes these nourishment goals:
- Increasing the use of warming, drying spices like cinnamon, cayenne, and nutmeg.
- Holding off on the raw vegetables, cold smoothies, raw juices, and raw fruits for the first 40 days postpartum. Then only slowly reincorporating them back in.
These tenets are sourced in Traditional Chinese Medicine which emphasizes the importance of restoring Yin energy post-birth. It’s also great for the baby’s own digestion as most newborns can’t actually tolerate even cooked veggies in a mother’s milk at first.
The book “The First Forty Days” is an excellent resource on postpartum nourishment to enhance your health and the health of your baby.
This nourishing food supports each element to provide a strong foundation. If you have this foundation laid down it is much easier to deal with sleep deprivation and stress. Your body will not respond as dramatically to your changing way of life. The food provides the strength you need to take on this new challenge. It also supports you as you potentially prepare for another pregnancy.
I like to call this “active recovery” – instead of assuming your body will spring back or assuming that once you’re physically healed that the work is done, know that you have to be active in your post-birth recovery every single day. Don’t see it as an additional responsibility, see it as something you’re doing to excel at taking care of your child.
Finding support to avoid postpartum depression
I chose to have a postpartum doula as well as a labor and delivery doula. She didn’t just check up on me right after the birth, but carried on doing so several times throughout the rest of that first year. If you’re able to have doula support, I highly recommend it.
It goes above and beyond the 6 week postpartum check up you’ll get from your doctor (where you may not yet be presenting symptoms). Doulas take the time to see you in your home environment, spend time with you, listen to you, cook for you and care for you, as well as the baby, as they know how vital it is that a new mom is healthy and happy.
Although this may seem like a luxury, it’s actually not that expensive and many doulas now work on a sliding scale too. In most European countries, 1 year of post-partum doula visits are government-subsidized, so every woman gets the care to ensure she is well postpartum – something we should fight for here in the US, too.
Always remember, that once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that finally start to work for you! You can do this – the science of your body is on your side!
to your FLO,
Good things come in threes:
I want to hear from you!
First, are you struggling with eating well as a new mom?
Second, are you struggling with mild depression?
Third, everyone you know is hormonal – spread a little good ovary karma and share this article on social 😉
Is Your Period Healthy?
How do you know if your hormones are healthy? The answer is in your 5th vital sign – your period.
The color of your flow, frequency of your period, and symptoms you have each month can tell you a lot about your health. There are 5 different V-SIGN TYPES, and knowing which one you have will help you get healthy now and prevent disease in the future.