I decided to write this article after a few of my clients started asking about post-partum depression. Because it is such a complex topic, this article is going to be quite a bit longer than my usual. My hope is that this brief overview and accompanying resources will provide moms with a few tangible ways to understand and possibly combat post-partum depression.
Lack of sleep, physical pain, past or current psychological trauma….all of these situations can increase one’s risk for depression. They are also common descriptions of life as a new mom. I don’t know of many new moms that are not are sleep-deprived, dealing with some sort of physical pain (recovery from birth, nipple soreness, etc.), or dealing with the stress of motherhood. All of these stressors can cause inflammation in the body, which is the lead factor in depression.
So what is a new mom to do to reduce her risk for post-partum depression?
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, a health psychologist, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and a specialist in mind-body medicine wrote a poignant research-based article about different causes for post-partum depression and the ways in which moms can reduce their risks. Her key finding was that reducing inflammation, both prenatally and postpartum, can help a new mom decrease her risk for post-partum depression.
Here are four ways to decrease inflammation in your body:
When breastfeeding is going well, it has proven to reduce a mother’s stress level, thereby reducing her body’s inflammation. Breastfeeding lowers stress-related hormones as well as reduces stress in babies whose mothers are dealing with depression. It is important to note, when breastfeeding is NOT going well, it may increase the risk for depression. For this reason, it is very important for mothers dealing with breastfeeding challenges and/or depression to contact a breastfeeding support person (La Leche League leader, Lactation Consultant, etc.) and get the assistance that they need. Research has shown that once a mother’s breastfeeding challenges have been resolved, her depression, or risk of depression, decreases.
Exercise reduces stress, which in turn reduces inflammation. While exercise is often one of the last things on a new mom’s mind, it has clear benefits for both mom and baby. When I take the time to exercise (which is not nearly often often), I often feel a sense of relaxation throughout the rest of the day. My mind has cleared, my body has let go of daily tension, and I feel like I have accomplished something just for me. So find some friends who like to take walks. Join Stroller Strides. Find a Mommy and Me yoga class. None of these require a babysitter, yet you can still spend that time on your mental and physical health.
Increasing Long-Chain Omega 3 Fatty Acids (EPA and DHA)
EPA is the Omega-3 that actually treats depression because it addresses the physiologic consequences of depression and lowers the stress response. It has been used by itself or has been combined with medications to treat depression. DHA helps prevent depression, but studies so far have found that it does not treat it by itself. It is usually combined with EPA. There is a vegetarian source of DHA, but no vegetarian source of EPA; fish oil is still the best source. For sources and dosage information, please see Kathleen Kendall-Tackett’s handout: Non-Drug Treatments for Depression in Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women. Unfortunately, ALA, the Omega-3 in flax seed and other plant sources, such as walnuts and canola oil, does not prevent or treat depression, although it is still nutritious and an important component in a healthy diet.
DHA while pregnant
Babies need a high level of DHA, especially during the 3rd trimester. If a pregnant mother is deficient in DHA, then her body will defer the DHA that she is taking in and divert it to her fetus, as well as take what is stored in her body. Remember DHA is needed to help prevent depression, so a pregnant mom should be taking enough for herself and her baby. Research studies have also shown that mothers with high levels of DHA in the third trimester had babies who exhibited a more mature sleep pattern in the first few days of life. This is not to say that high levels of DHA during pregnancy will mean that your baby will sleep through the night at an earlier age. Babies NEED to wake up throughout the night for nutrition, as well as for brain development (Secrets of Baby Behavior). However, babies who have a more mature sleep pattern will allow their moms to get more uninterrupted sleep, which could have an impact on their mother’s maternal health.
We are only just beginning to understand how to prevent and treat post-partum depression. If you are dealing with symptoms of postpartum depression, it is critical that you receive the medical and emotional help that you need. For more information about post-partum depression, please visit the following websites, as well as the one’s listed throughout this article.