Depression in early motherhood from a functional medicine perspective

Early motherhood is a very special time, and yet also incredibly challenging too. If you are struggling with low mood and find yourself crying all the time, here are some of the reasons why this might be so. Plus tips on what to try.
depression in motherhood

At the time of writing it’s Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, and that gives me as a good reason to write about depression in early motherhood.

Struggling with low mood, having feelings of darkness and hopelessness, and finding it hard to even just wash your hair is incredibly difficult no matter what stage of your life you are in. But when you are having to care for a young child as well then it’s particularly tough.

Postnatal depression, so depression that develops within  1 year of having a baby, is unfortunately a common problem. According to the NHS, more than 1 in every 10 women develops depression within a year of giving birth. That is a crazy high number if you ask me and it’s likely to be even higher than this as a lot of sufferers could be suffering in silence. And just to mention it, fathers and partners can also develop postnatal depression, and sometimes you find it called postpartum depression instead of postnatal depression.

Typical symptoms include:

  • feeling sad and low most of the time
  • difficulty enjoying things you used to enjoy
  • loss of interest
  • feeling very tired and exhausted most of the time
  • difficulty sleeping
  • eating too much or too little
  • feeling anger or rage
  • body aches and pains
  • social withdrawal
  • having a hard time bonding with your baby
  • difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • having frightening thoughts

What’s perhaps particularly difficult about postnatal depression is the feeling of guilt that can arise within the mother. There is often this felt expectation that as a young parent you’d be madly in love with your baby, and are loving each and every minute of your life. The reality is often quite different, and if you are struggling mentally then there can be a lot of confusion and guilt. And this, of course, can make it so hard to open up to others about how you are really feeling.

(But before I say anything else, I want to make clear that my recommendation is to see a GP if you are currently experiencing postnatal depression and are feeling very worried about your mental health.)
 
With this post I am hoping to provide an insight into what might be causing postnatal depression, and also offer tips and strategies to help you feel better.

Possible causes of depression in early motherhood

Nutritional deficiencies & general poor diet

Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding require a huge amount of micronutrients, so vitamins and minerals. You have after all just created a human being!
And nutritional deficiencies can very much underly symptoms of depression. Typical deficiencies that are connected to depression include B vitamins, vitamin D, iron, zinc, selenium, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids.

Not only has there been a huge nutritional demand on your body, but now that there’s a tiny human requiring your constant attention your diet might have become quite poor too. 

Perhaps you are skipping meals or are constantly snacking on sugar-rich foods. Perhaps processed foods have become a staple. Maybe your diet lacks in variety and diversity and is not providing you with the balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats that you need. Blood sugar imbalances, in particular, can have huge effects on your mood and mental health.

Hormonal imbalances

The world of hormones is a complicated one, that’s for sure. As you are going through pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, your body is going through a lot(!) of hormonal changes. And it’s often the big drop and fast changes in hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone dropping right after birth, that can cause symptoms such as depression. Breastfeeding cessation, so when you stop breastfeeding, is also linked to an increased risk for anxiety and depression. I am not sharing this to frighten anyone (it’s not going to happen to all mothers) but I think it’s important to be informed. 

It’s also not just the sex hormones we should be thinking about but your thyroid hormones too. Symptoms of hypothyroidism, so when your thyroid gland (which sits in the neck) does not produce enough thyroid hormones, include: fatigue, low mood, mood changes, brain fog and difficulty loosing weight among others. It’s a very straight-forward thing to test for with a simple blood test you can do at home. 

There is also a potential link between autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Hashimoto’s and postnatal depression. Again this can easily be checked for. 

Stress

This potential root cause almost goes without saying but equally should not (!) be underestimated. 

Young mothers are often under a huge amount of stress. There can be real physical stressors such as relentless sleep deprivation, a poor diet with high amounts of processed and inflammatory foods and the over-reliance of stimulants such as coffee. 

But there are also plenty of potential psychological and psychosocial stressors that can severely affect a mother’s quality of life and wellbeing. For example loneliness and a sense of isolation, lack of social support, the felt loss of identity, past trauma, a traumatic birth, feeling overwhelmed by new responsibilities, feelings of inadequacy, lack of time or difficult relationships. 

There is a very good article on postnatal depression and the pressures new mothers face on the Guardian website

Inflammation

If you have listened to my podcast on physical root causes of depression, then you’ll know that inflammation can be a big potential underlying cause of depression. And this includes young mothers, too, who are suffering from postnatal depression. If you are interested to read more about this link between inflammation and postnatal depression, then here is an interesting research article for you.

All the stressors listed above under “Stress” can cause levels of pro-inflammatory markers in your body to increase. But the good news is that you can decrease these pro-inflammatory markers through lifestyle interventions. So let’s talk about some of those and other helpful strategies for depression in early motherhood. 

Holistic interventions for depression in early motherhood

There really are a lot of different interventions you can try, either with a qualified practitioner or some entirely on your own at home. A lot of these you can do with your child but there are also some that require some time away from your child. 

  • See if your partner, a friend or family member can look after your child more, even if it’s just for one hour so you get some time to yourself. Take the time to sleep and rest if you need it. Take a hot bath with aroma therapy oils, or reconnect with activities you used to enjoy doing before becoming a mother. Do whatever you like, but take that time out. Every young mother deserves it.
  • Improve your diet: remove the sugar and make sure you have protein and healthy fats in all your main meals. Go for colour and include lots of fresh vegetables as best as you can – have a chat with your partner about this too if he/she is cooking meals as well. Eat fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and natural yoghurt if you tolerate them. Drink bone broths if you can.
  • Consider supplementation and herbal remedies to cover those common nutrient deficiencies and help regain a sense of balance. You will get the most benefit from working with a qualified practitioner in this case who can recommend personalised supplements/remedies based on your history and needs.
  • Get your thyroid tested, and consider tests for nutritional deficiencies too. If there are other more chronic symptoms, for example gut related, then know that a lot of other very helpful functional tests are out there.
  • Move your body. Go for long walks as much as you can, and take your child with you. That way you are also getting that much-needed sunlight exposure.
  • Set up a support network. We were never meant to raise our kids on our own, whilst also caring for the household and working and earning money all at once! It’s the modern-day madness that is making so many of us overwhelmed and sick. Find others with children of the same age. Ask for help. Find a support group. Don’t feel that you have to do this all on your own.
  • Consider a form of talking therapy such as CBT.
  • Consider complementary therapy such as hypnotherapy, herbalism, acupuncture, massage or homeopathy.

If you are interested in working on your mood and mental health with me then just get in touch. I know it can be hard to seek out help, or indeed to feel that you are worth it, but I am fully committed to helping you get better. 

Together we can work out why you are feeling like this, potentially run some functional tests, and work out a plan forward using lifestyle strategies and mindset work. I will help you along the way.  

depression in early motherhood

Welcome to the blog

I’m Claudia Smith and I help women get to better mental health naturally. Having overcome depression once myself, I am a qualified nutritionist, coach and practice functional medicine.

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