During times of physical and emotional demands in the early months, nutrition plays a critical role in nourishing the body and mind of a new mother. Here’s how poor nutrition may be connected to postpartum struggles.
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.
Postpartum depression is often the result of many different issues that combine to create the perfect storm. Risk factors are often 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
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Genetic Predisposition
- Inadequate nutrition, lacking nutrients or a poor quality diet
And while it’s important to realize that many components contributing to postpartum depression are not necessarily things can be controlled or prevented, there are other aspects of 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 mothers during a vulnerable time of transition.
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.
Playing 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
- Vitamin D
- 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 your body’s physiological systems and increase risk of mood disorders, such as postpartum depression.
So why are there 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
- Excessive exercise
- 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.
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. The key is to remember to focus on the quality of your diet to mitigate the risks of postpartum depression that may be associated with depleted nutrient stores.
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. Focusing on 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
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. Finding support groups and 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 bring your baby into the world.
Treat it kindly, just as it deserves.
Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: KEVIN LIANG
Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Board Certified Lactation Consultant, & mama of 5. With a virtual nutrition practice, Crystal helps overwhelmed mamas nurture a peaceful relationship with food & their bodies, end the battles at the dinner table and transform their kitchens to place of peace & joy. Learn more at Crystal Karges Nutrition.