How Postpartum Nutrition Can Improve Maternal Mental Health
A staggering number of women face postpartum depression in the months and years after childbirth, many who are unable to connect to the help and support they need for recovery.
It is estimated that 15% - 25% of women will struggle with a maternal mental health complication, such as depression or anxiety, during or post-pregnancy. This can emerge as either a new problem or a recurrence of a pre-existing mental health condition.
How Does Postpartum Depression Happen
Maternal mental health concerns, like postpartum depression, often develop due to a variety of many different factors, including physical components (things related to our body), and environmental stressors (experiences that affect us).
Risk of maternal mental health issues may be influenced by:
A woman’s family history of mental illness
Previous mental illness
Difficult birth experiences
Recent exposure to psychological stressors
Lacking family or economic support
Physical stress from pregnancy and childbirth
Inadequate nutrition, lacking nutrients or a poor quality diet
There is no single factor associated with postpartum depression that can be pinpointed as the cause of this maternal mental illness. Postpartum depression is often the result of many different issues that combine to create the perfect storm.
It’s important to realize that many of the components that contribute to postpartum depression are not necessarily things we can control or prevent, like our genetics or how we bring our babies into the world.
However, there are other aspects of our wellness that we do have some degree of control over, like how we care for and feed our bodies. This is where nutrition can come into the picture as a vehicle to help support ourselves during a vulnerable time of transition.
How is Postpartum Depression Treated
Because postpartum depression, like all mental illnesses, is influenced by many different factors, treatment options should also be comprehensive.
Every woman and her postpartum experience are unique, and what might help one mother overcome postpartum depression may be different for another mother. The most important thing is to have the support of both professionals and loved ones. Mental illness is real and the consequences can be devastating if left untreated, especially for a mother and her baby.
Some of the common forms of treatment that might be used for postpartum depression include:
Psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy)
Peer and Partner Support
Nutrition Therapy and Counseling
Complementary and alternative therapies
For many new mothers who might be struggling with postpartum depression, a combination of treatment approaches can be effective for conquering this mental illness.
How Nutrition Can Impact Maternal Mental Health
The role of nutrition in maternal mental health may not be as well understood as other facets of wellness, but more research is highlighting the importance of an optimal diet, especially during the critical months and years after pregnancy and childbirth. Studies have found a connection between nutrition and perinatal depression, or maternal depression that can occur during pregnancy and up to 1 year postpartum.
Specific nutrients are needed in greater quantities during pregnancy and postpartum, and deficiencies in these nutrients may increase the risk of postpartum depression. Nutrition plays an important role with hormonal regulation, gut health, immunity, and neuroendocrine functioning.
Some of the nutrients that may be connected with postpartum depression include:
Trace Minerals, including Selenium, Zinc, and Iron
Essentially fatty-acids, including EPA/DHA
When these nutrient stores are depleted during pregnancy and not adequately replenished in the postpartum period, this can be a trigger for poor functioning of many systems in the body and increase risk of mood disorders, like postpartum depression.
Nutrition Concerns During Pregnancy and Postpartum
Pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum healing and lactation all put additional demands on a woman's body, and therefore nutrient deficiencies arise more easily during this time. A woman’s body can be depleted of essential nutrients as it works to ensure that her baby’s needs are adequately met.
Other stressors that may cause nutrient-deficiencies in a pregnant or postpartum mom might include:
Having a history of chronic dieting, malnutrition, or an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, or binge eating disorder
Long-term use of certain medications before, during and after pregnancy
Stressors associated with motherhood
Inadequate nutrient-intake or sub-optimal diet
Typically, prenatal nutrition is overemphasized during pregnancy, and for good reason. Pregnancy can be a motivating time to care for your body and pay special attention to how you are eating with a baby growing inside you.
Postpartum women also have increased nutrient demands, especially for healing, recovery, and to support breastfeeding. Yet postpartum is one of the most challenging times to have an optimal diet because of that new mom life. Between the demands of caring for a newborn and adjusting to the many transitions after childbirth, it is hard to make time to feed your body appropriately.
Nutrition all too easy falls to the wayside during postpartum, but this window of time is vital for replenishing nutrient stores that may have been depleted from pregnancy and childbirth.
The additional nutrient demands in postpartum can quickly compound if a new mom is not being proactive and intentional about feeding her body well. It’s like trying to drive a car with an empty gas tank - eventually you’re going to suffer a breakdown.
For some mothers, this might trigger postpartum depression or other maternal mental illness. Other mothers might struggle to thrive physically or feel run-down. Motherhood is physically demanding, among other things, and nutrient deficiencies can trigger a host of complications that make it harder to function optimally.
Combating Postpartum Depression With Nutrition
The good news is that there are simple ways to support your body’s increased nutrient needs during pregnancy and postpartum. Being intentional about eating well can help your body replenish nutrient stores that may have been depleted during your motherhood journey.
Here are some steps you can take to optimize your nutrition to minimize risks of postpartum depression that may be associated with depleted nutrient stores:
Focus on the Quality of Your Diet
This is not about trying to perfect the way you eat or not practicing flexibility and balance with food. This is about aiming for variety and including foods in your diet that can support the increased nutrient needs that come during pregnancy and postpartum.
Aiming for nutrient-dense foods can be a way to get essential nutrients that are more easily depleted, such as:
Carbohydrates to sustain energy and promote healing, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, like oats, quinoa and brown rice.
Protein, for rebuilding tissues and muscles in the body, including poultry, grass-fed beef, seafood, eggs, yogurt, cheese, nuts, beans, and seeds
Healthy fats to help the body absorb nutrients, for energy storage and hormone regulation, like olive oil, hemp or chia seeds, grass-fed butter, avocado, coconut and fatty fishes like salmon
Dedicate Time to Meal Planning and Preparing Ahead
There’s no question that caring for a new baby makes it harder to find time for cooking and meal planning. Set aside a brief amount of time each week to plan out some healthy meals for yourself that you can quickly put together.
Automate and delegate what you can when it comes to meal planning and preparing food in motherhood to make things easier for yourself while caring for your baby. This might include:
Ordering groceries online and having them delivered
Using a meal-kit service temporarily
Asking for help from loved ones for shopping and cooking
Spending a short time on planning meals and snacks for yourself will help you be more intentional about how you are feeding yourself.
Use Quality Supplements
Supplements can be great way to fill in the gaps when it comes to increased nutrient needs during pregnancy and postpartum. However, it is important to work with your prenatal registered dietitian and healthcare provider to determine what supplements might be most appropriate for you during your pregnancy and in postpartum.
Because the supplement market is not well-regulated, you want to be sure you are using high-quality, professional grade supplements. Supplements should be used to support a healthy diet, not replace it. If your diet is lacking in certain foods and nutrients, you may need to supplement to ensure that you are getting adequate nutrition to support your pregnancy and postpartum recovery.
Don’t Skimp on Feeding Your Body Well
There is a tremendous amount of pressure of moms to lose weight postpartum and “bounce-back” to their pre-baby bodies. Some moms may turn to dieting as a way of creating some sense of normalcy in the chaotic transition of motherhood and rediscovering a new identity as a mom.
However, dieting in postpartum is connected with poor body image, increased mental health issues, and eating disorders. New moms who are restricting their intake or not allowing themselves to eat enough are creating more nutrient deficiencies that can trigger a host of problems. Postpartum recovery goes easier when feeding your body optimal nutrition.
Work With a Prenatal and Postpartum Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
If you’re overwhelmed with how to optimize your nutrition during pregnancy and postpartum or have struggled with feeding yourself well, know that you don’t have to do this alone. Having some professional guidance along your journey can help you feel more confident in how you are feeding yourself and support a healthy pregnancy and postpartum recovery.
Your body has worked hard to grow your baby and bring it into the world. Take care of yourself and treat your body kindly so that you can recover well and thrive through motherhood.
Get Help for Postpartum Depression
It’s important to understand that postpartum depression is a severe mental illness that often requires comprehensive help and professional treatment for recovery. Supplements and dietary changes alone are not cures for postpartum depression and maternal mental illness, but rather, should be an integral part of treatment and recovery.
If you are experiencing symptoms related to postpartum depression, please connect with professional resources for help, recovery, and a comprehensive treatment plan. Remember that you are not alone and that there is hope for healing.
***If you are thinking about hurting yourself or your baby or in the case of a mental health emergency, please get help immediately by going to a hospital emergency room, calling 9-1-1, or contacting your obstetrician/primary care provider.