Eat for Optimal Postpartum Mental Health Image: 123rf
The postpartum period is challenging for mothers of new babies. It’s a time ruled by sleep deprivation, new routines, constant feedings, and all the other not so magical things that come along with having a new baby in the household. Add a postpartum mood disorder into that mix and things can go from challenging to almost unbearable in the blink of an eye. Trust me, I know. After the birth of my son in 2009 I was surprised to find myself suffering from PPMD and I have first hand experience with just how important it is to pay attention to your diet and lifestyle while trying to cope with poor postpartum mental health.
The tricky thing with PPMD is that there’s not just one cause for every woman, so it’s difficult to come up with one plan to prevent it, or support those going through it, that will work for everyone. That being said, there is no doubt that there are hormonal imbalances that are wreaking havoc with mental health, compounded by lack of sleep, and all the other stressors of new motherhood. Whether a woman chooses to go on medication or not (I was on Celexa for about a year), if she does not address nutritional imbalances, or food-based anxiety triggers she will not see the full benefit the treatment plan being given to her by her therapist.
As a holistic nutritionist I believe in the power of whole foods, supplements, and herbs to help keep the body and mind in balance. These things, combined with exercise and other lifestyle choices can have a powerful effect on a person’s overall wellbeing. Because everyone is different, the best way to decide what foods and supplements you need is to work with a knowledgeable practitioner. There are, however, some basic guidelines that apply to almost everyone.
1. Eat a whole foods based diet, emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and quality protein. This may seem simplistic, but when you’re tired, cranky, and hungry at the end of the day, the temptation to order a pizza for dinner, or choose other convenience foods might be overpowering. The problem with foods like these is that they are nutritionally void, chock full of filler and preservatives, and loaded with poor quality fats and sodium. If your diet is mainly comprised of foods like these not only will you be missing out on quality nutrients, but your body and mind will feel heavy, bloated, and slow.
2. Avoid caffeine (especially from coffee and black tea). I’m aware that this isn’t going to be a popular suggestion with the sleep deprived mommy set, but what if I told you that caffeine (specifically in the amounts found in coffee and black tea) has been shown to increase anxiety? For a woman suffering from postpartum anxiety simply the act of reducing, or eliminating coffee consumption can lead to a dramatic reduction is feelings of anxiety. As well, caffeine is a diuretic and can flush valuable water-soluble vitamins and minerals from the body, some of which are important to mood and energy. If you do need a little caffeinated pick-me-up why not try a green tea? In addition to providing some caffeine (though in far lesser amounts found in coffee or black tea), green tea is also high in something called L-Theanine which promotes a calm, alert state of mind.
3. Eat fat. Now there’s something that’s bound to be more popular! The key is to eat good quality fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, and cold water fish. Fried foods, chips, cookies, and other convenience foods are loaded with hydrogenated and trans fats which are of no use to the body. Nuts, seeds and fish contain the essential fatty acids (EFAs) Omega-3 and Omega-6, which are vital to good health. EFAs are “essential” because the body cannot make them, meaning we must obtain them from diet. While EFAs are known for their anti-inflammatory action in the body, they’re also very important for cell membrane function. At the risk of sounding too simplistic (there’s a lot of scientific explanation and research that goes along with all this) if you eat too much saturated, animal-based, or trans-fatty acids your cell membranes become less fluid. The reason why this is so important is that without a healthy, fluid membrane, cells lose their ability to hold water, electrolytes, and vital nutrients. Even more important, however, is that they lose their ability to communicate with other cells and be controlled by regulating hormones. Yes, you read that correctly, hormones. So eat fat, just eat good fat.
4. Avoid the “white” stuff. There is no nutritional value to sugar and white flour. There, I’ve said it. People generally eat too much sugar, and it has such a grip on them that getting them to take a break, and not eat it for even a few days, results in symptoms similar to breaking an addiction. There is nothing wrong with a treat once in awhile, but it should be limited to just that, a treat. Eating too much white flour, and white sugar means that you’re missing out on the important nutrients found in whole grains, many of which contribute to energy and good mental health. The trouble is, health washing of many foods has us convinced that they’re made of whole grains, when in fact, they’re just stripped down grain products with a certain amount of bran added back in. Skip the processed stuff and just eat the real whole grain.
5. Take care of your gut. Keeping your digestive system and intestinal tract healthy is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. It might surprise you to learn that the majority of the serotonin (a feel good neurotransmitter that is typically low in those suffering from depression and anxiety) the body produces actually comes from good bacteria in your intestines. The same with B vitamins, which are key in energy and metabolism. So, eat fermented foods like kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kombucha, and take your probiotics. Oh, and sugar feeds the bad bacteria in your gut. Sorry…
There are definitely supplements and herbs that can be helpful as well (St. John’s Wort, 5-HTP, GABA, L-Theanine), but due to interactions with medications, as well as with breastfeeding, some of these supplements might be contraindicated so it’s important to consult with a knowledgeable practitioner before deciding if a supplement is right for your situation.
The last suggestion I would make is get outside. Take your dog for a walk, push baby in a stroller, ask a friend to join you or go by yourself. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just do it. You’ll benefit from the endorphins you’ll get from the exercise and if you do it while the sun is shining you’ll get a hit of natural Vitamin D in the process. Your brain will thank you.
PPMD may make it feel like the world is closing in on you. It may also suck the joy out of what should be a wonderful period of getting to know this new little person who you helped create. There is help out there for you, you just have to ask. In the meantime, eat to feel good.