Mood changes are extremely common postpartum. So much so that we have the popularized term “baby blues” to signify the feelings of stress, sadness, loneliness, fatigue, and anxiety that many new moms face in the early weeks after delivery. Furthermore, Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) which are different and more severe than baby blues are considered the most common pregnancy complication and affect 15-20% of the population (1).
Postpartum mental health disorders and even less serious (but still meaningful) mood shifts affect so much more than just emotions. Our mental health has a major influence on appetite, energy levels, sleep, cognition, pain levels, digestion, and more. Likewise, the way we eat can have a significant impact on our mental health.
Here are four ways our nutrition can affect our mood balance postpartum.
Guilt and shame: Eating can actually be very emotionally charged. Postpartum, many women experience the pressure to start dieting again to shrink their bodies and fit back into pre-pregnancy clothes. Whether trying to adhere to a regimented diet or trying to follow subconscious food rules (like no eating after dinner or avoiding desserts)…the result of dieting is the feeling of failure when you can no longer keep up with the unrealistic standards.
Instead of diets, try nourishing your body with foods that promote energy, healing, and enjoyment. Disentangling yourself from the grips of diet culture can take time but support from a dietitian can help you rediscover eating that actually prioritizes your physical and mental health and is sustainable for the long-term.
Gut health: Gut bacteria play a powerful role in mood regulation. There is something called the “gut-brain axis” which demonstrates the intimate relationship and constant communication between the gut microbiome and mood and mental health (2). Gut bacteria helps to digest food and promote the absorption of nutrients that are key to hormone balance and even directly produces neurotransmitters like serotonin. A randomized control trial even found that probiotic supplementation in pregnancy and postpartum decreased depression and anxiety symptoms compared to the placebo group (3).
Nurturing gut health is an important way to also support your mental health. Include probiotic rich foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, and eat a diverse array of fiber-rich foods.
Irritability: When your blood sugar drops too low your body releases stress hormones like cortisol. Low blood sugar also can make it harder to concentrate or make decisions because glucose (or sugar) is the primary fuel source for the brain. So your “hanger” is not just being dramatic, skipping meals can put physiological stress on your body resulting in that short fuse.
Focusing on consistent balanced meals is key for supporting balanced blood sugar to sustain you throughout the day. Pack snacks to satisfy hunger between meals and prevent that depleted, low blood sugar feeling that can wreak havoc on your mood.
Nutrient intake: There is ongoing research about which nutrients may be associated with postpartum depression. Vitamin D has some of the strongest research supporting a link to postpartum depression (4). Anemia and low iron stores have also been shown as risk factors (5). There could also be a beneficial role in nutrients such as DHA, zinc, selenium though some research has yielded mixed results (6).
Choosing nutrient-dense foods, getting relevant lab work done, and continuing a prenatal supplement are important ways to address the nutrient component of mood balance.
Taking these factors into consideration, let’s look at five foods that stand out for their mental health promoting properties.
Canned Tuna is a convenient protein option that provides Vitamin D, selenium, and some of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Try making a tuna salad with some sesame nori seasoning for an added flavor and nutrient boost!
Spinach is a favorite leafy green with an abundance of folate, another nutrient that is important in preventing anemia and overall mental health outcomes. Toss some into your smoothie, frittata, or sauté some with garlic and olive oil for a satisfying side.
Grass-fed beef is a rich source of iron, zinc, and B12, and grass-fed meats have a more favorable profile of fatty acids with higher levels of omega-3s than conventional meats. Serve it in a stew, pasta dish, or a taco recipe!
Kefir is an easy way to boost your probiotic intake to nourish your gut microbiome. Some options are also fortified with Vitamin D. Use it as a smoothie base, sip it as is, or pour it over cereal.
Bananas are a great choice because of their Vitamin B6 content which is a key nutrient for synthesis of mood regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin. They are also a solid source of complex carbohydrates to help prevent low blood sugar. Snack on your banana with a handful of walnuts, drizzled with sunflower seed butter, or sliced into some yogurt.
Nutrition can be one way to care for your mental health postpartum when so many of us need some extra nurturing. And most importantly, if your mental health is suffering seek the support of a doctor, psychologist, or therapist. Many women feel isolated and ashamed when facing struggles with their mental health which makes seeking support feel like an added challenge. But your mental health matters and you are most definitely not alone.
- Lomonaco-Haycraft KC, Hyer J, Tibbits B, et al. Integrated perinatal mental health care: a national model of perinatal primary care in vulnerable populations [published online ahead of print, 2018 Jun 18]. Prim Health Care Res Dev. 2018;20:1-8. doi:10.1017/S1463423618000348
- Clapp M, Aurora N, Herrera L, Bhatia M, Wilen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota's effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract. 2017;7(4):987. Published 2017 Sep 15. doi:10.4081/cp.2017.987
- Slykerman RF, Hood F, Wickens K, Thompson JMD, Barthow C, Murphy R, Kang J, Rowden J, Stone P, Crane J, Stanley T, Abels P, Purdie G, Maude R, Mitchell EA; Probiotic in Pregnancy Study Group. Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 in Pregnancy on Postpartum Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Randomised Double-blind Placebo-controlled Trial. EBioMedicine. 2017 Oct;24:159-165. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.09.013. Epub 2017 Sep 14. PMID: 28943228; PMCID: PMC5652021.
- Trujillo J, Vieira MC, Lepsch J, Rebelo F, Poston L, Pasupathy D, Kac G. A systematic review of the associations between maternal nutritional biomarkers and depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum. J Affect Disord. 2018 May;232:185-203. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.02.004. Epub 2018 Feb 15. PMID: 29494902.
- Wassef A, Nguyen QD, St-André M. Anaemia and depletion of iron stores as risk factors for postpartum depression: a literature review. J Psychosom Obstet Gynaecol. 2019 Mar;40(1):19-28. doi: 10.1080/0167482X.2018.1427725. Epub 2018 Jan 24. PMID: 29363366.
- Zhao XH, Zhang ZH. Risk factors for postpartum depression: An evidence-based systematic review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Asian J Psychiatr. 2020 Oct;53:102353. doi: 10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102353. Epub 2020 Aug 30. PMID: 32927309.