How a Bad Diet Worsens Postpartum Depression

Meenakshi S.

August 4, 2023

The life of a new mother is filled with challenges – recovering physically from labor and delivery, getting used to life with a newborn, dealing with new responsibilities, lack of sleep, and problems with breastfeeding. The baby blues also make an appearance but this short-lived state that affects about 70% of new moms passes in a couple of weeks. However, about 15% of women find themselves suffering from postpartum depression, a clinical depression that’s related to pregnancy and childbirth.

What is postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression can develop at any time during the baby’s first year but is most common during the first three weeks after birth. It makes you sad, hopeless, moody and guilty. It could be because you don’t feel like you want to bond with or care for your baby. Postpartum depression doesn’t just affect first-time moms; it can make an appearance even when you give birth to your third child. It can be hard to spot as the symptoms are similar to those seen in the “baby blues”.

There can be many causes of postpartum depression, including changes in hormone levels, stress, a history of depression or lack of preparedness to take care of a baby.

What are the symptoms to watch out for?

The signs may vary from woman to woman, but these are some of the common ones:

  • Crying a lot, sometimes for no real reason
  • Feelings of sadness, loss of hope, despair
  • Trouble “bonding”, or feeling close to your baby
  • Unable to care for your baby or do basic chores
  • Loss of interest in food, sex, self-care and other things you once enjoyed
  • Too little or too much sleep
  • Trouble focusing, learning, and/or remembering instances

The link between diet & postpartum depression

Continuing research shows a link between nutrition – some specific nutrients in particular – and postpartum depression. Researchers at University of Colorado identified a link between micronutrient deficiencies and postpartum depression. Studies suggest that the link between nutrition and the psychoneuroimmunology behind symptoms of depression may help prevent or alleviate postpartum depression with natural supplements or a targeted diet.

The most widely nutrient deficiencies that can have a potential impact on postpartum depression include omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, folate and trace minerals such as iron, zinc, selenium and potassium. Many new mothers have low serotonin (the feel-good hormone) or norepinephrine levels in the brain, which get aggravated by nutritional deficiencies. The brain needs a continual supply of nutrients, including tryptophan and vitamins B3 and B6 to produce sufficient serotonin and other neurotransmitters.

If you’re suffering from postpartum depression, it’s important to get your diet right. Here’s what you should keep in mind:

Eat the right foods

Eat the right foods

The right foods eaten at the right time can help new mothers avert depression. It’s especially important to get enough protein in your diet as it keeps you feeling fuller and aids in recovery. The total amount of protein you need daily depends on how much you weigh and whether you’re nursing. Foods that are beneficial include those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and trace elements. Dairy products, poultry, meat and fish along with low-glycemic carbs like nuts, whole grains, and beans can boost production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which has a calming effect on the brain.

Foods that new-mothers should aim to incorporate in their diet include

  • Cottage cheese
  • Bananas
  • Spinach
  • Pineapple
  • Moong beans
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas/kidney beans
  • Asparagus
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Tofu
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Oats
  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Tuna
  • Lobster

Get your water fix each day

Get your water fix each day

Dehydration is known to worsen the blues, and consequently depression. Fatigue and anxiety may be symptoms of moderate dehydration. New mothers should drink at least nine glasses of fluid, mainly water, each day. The number goes up to 13-14 glasses if breastfeeding. Opt for plain water, coconut water, infused water or non-caffeinated beverages with no sugar. Never wait till you’re thirsty to drink a glass of water. Getting a glass of fluid every time you nurse is a good idea.

Avoid alcohol, caffeine & sugar

Avoid alcohol, caffeine & sugar

A tired mom may feel caffeine could give her a boost of energy, but it exacerbates anxiety and should be avoided. Caffeine can make you agitated, irritable, and restless. Doctors recommend that nursing moms have no more than 300 mg of caffeine a day (about two cups). Alcohol is a depressant, so it can feed depression. It’s a complete no-no for a woman who is breastfeeding. Replacing alcohol and caffeinated drinks with water is a smart choice. Depressed mothers also often crave sugar, but similar to caffeine, it gives a quick boost and eventually leads to a crash. If a new mother feels she can’t give up coffee and sugar completely, she should try to minimize her intake. This will lead to a better mood and a healthier body.

Choose dark chocolate every time

Choose dark chocolate every time

New mothers are often fed copious amounts of ghee-laden sweets in a bid to help “recover their strength”. Desist, for it does you and your mood no good. Junk food and white sugar give you a temporary lift, but end in an eventual crash. If you find yourself craving a sweet treat, choose high-quality dark chocolate. Chocolate with at least 70 per cent cocoa improves the mood by increasing the serotonin level in your brain. It may also trigger the release of endorphins and can help you lose weight.

Pay attention to your appetite

Pay attention to your appetite

Skipping meals or an eating schedule gone awry is routine during the harried first weeks of caring for a newborn. However, if you notice that you don’t find yourself hungry, this loss of appetite may signal postpartum depression. Eating poorly or not eating the right foods can play havoc with your blood sugar levels and contribute to mood issues. If breastfeeding or expressing, specific multivitamins can help boost your and your baby’s nutrition. But always check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

The right diet combined with regular exercise can help cope with postpartum depression. Our experts can design a special plan so that you enjoy this phase of motherhood and work to reclaim your pre-pregnancy body.

About the Author

In addition to doing her Master’s in Physiotherapy from Oxford College, Bangalore, Meenakshi has done her MD in Alternative Medicine too. She is also a Certified Childbirth Educator, a Pre and Postnatal Fitness Expert and an ACSM Health and Fitness Specialist. Meenakshi attributes most lifestyle disorders to today’s sedentary way of living. She has always shared HealthifyMe’s vision of incorporating healthy habits into an individual’s existing lifestyle. “Do not think of diet and exercise as sacrifice, make it a habit and enjoy it instead,” she says, recommending small changes to ease the mind and body towards a more wholesome life.

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