Harnessing food's healing power: How diet impacts postpartum depression symptoms
In the whirlwind of becoming a new parent, the postpartum period—those weeks after you give birth—can bring about emotional shifts. Baby blues are common after childbirth and are characterized by feeling sad, worried and tired. They go away within a few days.
However, if those emotions linger or if you feel anxious or hopeless for longer than two weeks, you may have postpartum depression, or PPD. PPD symptoms are severe enough that they could interfere with your mental, behavioral and physical health and may affect your daily life. The mother may not feel care, love or connection to the baby.
Recognizing the symptoms of PPD
- Feel tired and have no energy
- Cannot concentrate or focus
- Don’t enjoy the things that you once did
- Experience poor sleep (even when the baby is asleep)
- Have decreased self-confidence or low self-esteem
- Have experienced appetite changes.
If you experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, talk to someone—a friend, family member, doctor or other confidante—about your thoughts and emotions.
Nutritional help with postpartum depression
There's evidence suggesting a link between good nutrition and postpartum depression (PPD). For instance, deficiencies in nutrients like B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and zinc have been associated with a higher risk of experiencing depressive symptoms, including those related to PPD.
While nutrition might not be the sole factor influencing PPD, it's considered one of the contributing elements affecting a woman's mental health after childbirth. Here are some of the essential nutrients that might help that might help lessen the risk or severity of postpartum depression
B vitamins are essential for normal brain activity. Studies have shown that there is a link between a higher risk of experiencing depression and low vitamin B6 consumption. Other studies have shown that people with low levels of B6 are don’t respond as well to antidepressants than those who have high levels.
Although there is not sufficient evidence from studies that exclusively analyzed B vitamins in PPD treatment, it may be a good idea for you to make sure you’re getting enough of them postpartum. Foods that are a good source of the B vitamins include legumes/beans and grains, such as cereal.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Some studies have shown that supplementing the diet with foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids may reduce PPD symptoms. There is evidence to show that fatty acids contained in fish and fish oil, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have an antidepressant effect.
While you are producing breast milk, the stores of DHA in your system are transferred to your baby through the milk to support the child’s neurological development. As your DHA stores are depleted, you may begin experiencing depression symptoms.
There is not enough evidence at this time to support omega-3 intake and supplementation as a definitive treatment, but there is enough to suggest that EPA-rich oil can reduce depression during pregnancy and PPD after childbirth. If used long term, DHA-rich oil can help reduce the risk of PPD in healthy women, but not in lactating women.
It’s important to be mindful of the sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as some fish can contain varying levels of mercury. Canned, frozen or fresh cold-water fish, such as tuna, salmon and mackerel are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based options for omega-3 fatty acids include dark, green leafy vegetables, chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseed oil.
The full relationship between vitamin D levels and PPD is not thoroughly understood, but researchers believe that vitamin D deficiencies are connected to depression symptoms. Vitamin D plays a vital role in blocking inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the blood can break down the blood-brain barrier and can alter brain activity, leading to symptoms of depression. Studies have shown that reduced vitamin D levels in mothers postpartum may result in more noticeable PPD symptoms.
While there is no evidence that vitamin D supplementation is an effective treatment for PPD, it is well established that vitamin D status affects many other aspects of your health. Deficiency early in pregnancy is associated with the risks of low birth weight and small-for-gestational-age infants. Mothers with lower vitamin D levels are at increased risk for gestational diabetes, hypertension and pre-eclampsia. Mothers with low vitamin D status secrete lower levels of vitamin D into the breast milk, putting infants that nurse exclusively at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D2 and D3 are the most common forms of vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D3, the type of vitamin that is produced by the body, is derived from fish oils, so if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it may not be appropriate for you. Vitamin D2, produced from plant based sources, may be a better option for you.
Humans naturally produce vitamin D via sun exposure, but if you’re looking for food sources, fatty fish (which include trout, salmon and tuna) are good. Eggs and UV-treated mushrooms are also good options, and almost all dairy milks and plant-based milks (such as soy, almond and oat milk) are fortified with vitamin D. Always consult your physician before starting any supplements.
Zinc is one of the trace minerals with the highest concentration in the brain. Zinc deficiency has been shown to be associated with higher feelings of anxiety and depression. While the current evidence is limited, studies have shown that zinc supplementation can have a significant reduction in PPD symptoms, and further research is being conducted on the possibility of using zinc as a potential preventative for PPD. Shellfish, meats (such as beef, pork and lamb), lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, milk and cheese, and whole grains are all good dietary sources of zinc. Again, always consult a physician before beginning supplements.
The Western diet is a modern diet characterized by high consumption of red and processed meats. Following the Western diet has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of PPD symptoms.
The Western diet has also been shown in some cases to lead to inflammation and heart disease, which could potentially induce depression, but there isn’t enough evidence or research to confirm that link.
Lean proteins—chicken breast, turkey and fish—on the other hand, can help your body create mood-stabilizing neurochemicals like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.
Eating fewer foods with excessive amounts of added sugar and adding more whole grains to your diet can also lower inflammation in the body. Fresh or frozen leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, chard and algae can help provide nutrients beneficial to the nervous system.
It is important to remember that diet cannot cure PPD, but your food choices can help reduce symptoms. Adequate intake of B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and zinc stores during and after pregnancy, and maintaining a diet lower in red meats, added sugars, and processed foods could all help lower PPD symptoms. Make sure to see your physician regularly, and if possible, have lab values tested twice a year.
If you experience any mood changes, speak with your doctor and reach out if you need help.
Learn more about how a balanced diet can help you manage other health concerns. Book an appointment with a registered nutritionist or dietitian today.
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