11.05.2018

Postnatal Mental Health and Nutrition

The postnatal period is a crucial time for mums and their babies, yet, as recognised by the World Health Organisation, it is the most neglected for the provision of quality care.

One of the key areas neglected is mental health. Becoming a mum for the first, second or however many times can bring about amplified emotions, from happy to feelings of low mood, anxiety, a sense of loss of identity and loneliness. It is OK, and normal, to feel these emotions but don’t be afraid to speak up about how you feel. If you are worried about how you are feeling, talk to someone, your partner, GP, midwife, health visitor and friends – there is support out there. You are not alone.

What effects mood?

There are lots of factors that can influence the way you feel postnatally. What research does tell us is that nutrition has the power to influence hormones and your neurotransmitters (chemical signals controlling how your feel), which in turn effects your mood.

The main reason for new mums becoming nutrient deficient are:

  • entering pregnancy in a nutrient deficient state;
  • not meeting nutrient needs during pregnancy, as your baby takes the nutrients it needs from what you eat, or if you aren’t getting enough of something, from your stores;
  • or

  • not eating the right kinds of food to support recovery and breastfeeding in the postnatal period.
  • How diet may support your mood:

    There are lots of ways nutrition may support your mental health, the key ones being:

    Omega 3

    Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that your body cannot make itself. Omega 3 fatty acids are needed for a variety of bodily processes, including brain function. Approximately 60% of the fat in your brain is made up of omega 3 fats. Research has shown that the consumption of omega 3 fats may decrease the symptoms of depression.

    During the last trimester, your omega 3 stores may become depleted as your baby’s requirements rapidly increase. If you are breastfeeding, you also need around need extra omega 3 in your diet.

    The most abundant source of omega 3 fats comes from oily fish (think SMASH – sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring). Vegan sources are walnuts, chia and flax seeds but these sources are not as well utilised by your body as oily fish. If you are breastfeeding, it is advised that you have no more than two portions of oily fish per week, which can make it difficult for you to consume the optimum amount of omega 3. If you don’t feel you are getting enough omega 3 through diet, it may be worth investigating into a good quality omega 3 supplement.

    Zinc

    Zinc is needed for many bodily functions, including blood sugar regulation, metabolism of hormones, immune function, behavioural development and for your central nervous system. Of the trace elements, zinc has the second highest concentration in the brain. Zinc deficiency has been linked to postnatal depression. During pregnancy and if breastfeeding, your body has an increased demand for zinc.

    Good sources of zinc are pumpkin seeds, lamb, chickpeas, cashews and yoghurt.

    Blood sugar balance

    As hormonal imbalance can result in low mood, anxiety and depression, it is no surprise that approximately 85% of women experience some feeling of low mood in the weeks after birth. Keeping your blood sugar under control is one of the key things you can do to support your hormonal health.

    But what does this mean?

    When we eat or drink refined carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, cakes, fruit juice, sweets and cakes, they break down quickly into sugar, that sugar surges in your blood, causing a rise in the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job is to remove excess sugar from your blood. Stress, alcohol, artificial sweeteners and caffeine also have the same effect on blood sugar. Over time (not just a couple days of hitting the biscuits), these sugar and insulin spikes can contribute to feelings of anxiety, low mood and depression. In addition, continuously high insulin levels can deplete your happy neurotransmitter, serotonin, and low serotonin levels are linked to food cravings, low mood and depression.

    With lack of sleep and a baby (and possibly older children) to care for, it is all too easy to reach for a sugary treat but by making some healthy swaps, you can support your blood sugar and therefore your hormones and mood:

  • Swap white for brown foods (brown rice, wholegrain, sourdough and rye bread, wholewheat pasta, lentil pasta)
  • Increase your fibre intake by eating more vegetables at each meal and whole fruits instead of juice
    make sure you include protein and healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds) to slow down the release of sugar into your blood;
  • and

  • If you have caffeine, pair it with a protein rich breakfast, snack or lunch.
  • Gut health, reducing inflammation and restoring trace minerals (such as magnesium and copper) and correcting other nutrient deficiencies, especially iron) may also support the way you feel.

    This is not to say that diet can prevent mood disorders, but it may go some way in supporting how you feel to give you the energy to best support you and your baby.

    Kristy is a qualified Nutritional Therapist and first-time mother. Her mission is to use the latest evidence-based nutrition to support you and your family. She has a special focus on nutrition for women for pregnancy and onwards, infants and children.

    Mood and food

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