I was having lunch with a group of girlfriends last week, and while we were happily chatting away about the latest events in our lives, one of them, who had a baby just four months ago, suddenly burst into tears. A few tissues later, she told us she is suffering from postnatal depression (PND). What followed was an animated discussion on how changes in hormones are to blame, as well as the lack of sleep, raised stress levels and fatigue.
During pregnancy and lactation, nutritional demands increase vastly and deficiencies in vital nutrients can easily arise.
While I don’t dispute any of this, I was surprised that none of my friends – all mothers like me – thought nutrition plays a role in PND too. I get the same surprised reaction in clinic when I tell expecting ladies about this. I more light should be shed on the role of nutritional deficiencies as far as postnatal depression is concerned, this is an infrequently recognised factor.
Research is starting to show the role nutrition may plan in postnatal depression
It’s well recognised that the right diet can have a major impact on our brain and its performance in general. Recent research is also starting to show that nutrition could play a biological role in maternal depression. So, which are the best possible foods to focus on while trying to prevent or manage postnatal depression?
So, which are the best possible foods to focus on while trying to prevent or manage postnatal depression?
Embrace the good fats
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential because they’re necessary for human health but, as the body can’t make them, we need to get them from food.
Lack of these essential fats, which are vital for brain function as well as normal growth and development, has been linked to depression.
During pregnancy, Omega 3 levels can become depleted while the baby’s brain and nervous system develop. Equally, during breastfeeding, the demand for these beneficial oils increases.
Good sources of Omega 3s are: cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and fresh anchovies) nuts (especially walnuts), seeds (pumpkin and hemp), grass fed meats, eggs from free range organic chickens, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil.
During pregnancy, zinc requirement increases dramatically while stress, which is often a factor with the arrival of a new baby, is also responsible for robbing the body of zinc. So it’s no surprise studies have found a relationship between the severity of PND symptoms and low zinc concentration in the blood.
Best sources of this vital mineral are: organ meats, fish, seafood, poultry, wheat germ, seeds and nuts.
Boost your B vitamins
All the B vitamins, which work collectively and individually in every cell to perform various jobs, are involved in energy production.
They also help convert nutrients into serotonin, our ‘feel good’ hormone, so it’s essential to stock up on vitamin B rich foods.
Great sources of B vitamins are: dark green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, eggs and chicken. Animal foods are the only natural sources of vitamin B12 but many products like cereals, Marmite and bread are fortified with it.
Nourish your neurotransmitters
Serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter responsible for uplifting our moods.
Dopamine and noradrenalin also play a part, and women with PND have often been found to have an imbalance of these important chemicals. When these neurotransmitters are low you can experience lack of energy, motivation and anxiety. The body uses amino acids which are found in protein foods to create neurotransmitters. Therefore it’s important to make sure your diet contains adequate amounts of protein.
Sources of protein include: meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, quinoa, dairy products, beans and legumes.
Balance your blood sugar levels
Signs of blood sugar imbalance include fatigue, loss of concentration, brain fog and mood swings, which will make other depression symptoms worse.
To balance blood sugar levels and make sure the body receives a constant supply of energy throughout the day, make sure you eat regularly (every three hours at least) and try to include a good source of protein with every meal and snack.
For example, add a tablespoon of mixed seeds to your porridge at breakfast, snack on a couple of boiled eggs in the afternoon and make sure your main meals include some lean meat, fish or beans.
Eating the right foods can make a difference quite quickly
My friend admitted her diet has been far from optimal in recent months, so we’re now working together to make her postnatal depression a thing of the past. With the implementation of a tailored food plan, improvements can happen quickly. Provided new mothers are also trying to get enough rest whenever possible, eating a well-balanced diet, rich in the above nutrients, may help avoid symptoms of PND or fight it off altogether.
My wish for all mothers experiencing PND is to be able to regain their zest for life soon, so they can be the best, energetic and happy mothers they deserve to be.
Zara Stella is a registered nutritional therapist, health coach and zest for life practitioner.