Postnatal depletion: health and nutrition for new mothers

Postnatal depletion: health and nutrition for new mothers

The birth of a new child is cause for great celebration and joy, but it can also be a remarkably stressful and uncertain time in a woman’s life. The source of many emotional, physical and social changes, pregnancy and childbirth can often take their toll on new mothers.

An Australian physician, Dr. Oscar Serralach, has dubbed this phenomenon “postnatal depletion”, and his work is steadily gaining traction within the wider medical community. His research, along with others, is adding to a growing body of evidence establishing postnatal depletion as a readily recognised health condition, and helping to devise techniques that can help new mothers to overcome it.

What causes postnatal depletion?

Part of the difficulty in assisting new mothers in dealing with postnatal depletion is the wide range of proposed causes.

These include:

  • the stresses generally associated with modern life, all of which affect hormone production, immunity, brain chemistry, and general health
  • the large amount of energy expended during the pregnancy to feed the growing baby
  • having babies later in life when women’s bodies are less able to recover
  • not receiving the necessary support prior to birth, meaning new mothers begin on the back foot
  • pressure on new mothers to do too much before they can adjust to new maternal responsibilities
  • poor quality or lack of sleep
  • insufficient nutrition and dietary support
  • unavailability of comprehensive support for mothers due to decreased role of extended family and community in modern, Western child rearing.

This combination of factors, some of which are perhaps unavoidable, can often create a perfect storm for new mothers. In fact, Dr. Serralach argues that postnatal depletion may affect up to 50% of all women who have children, sometimes for up to seven years after the birth.

What are the symptoms of postnatal depletion?

Because postnatal depletion manifests with both physiological and psychological symptoms, it can be disconcerting for sufferers and potentially problematic for primary care professionals to diagnose. These symptoms include:

  • hypervigilance and anxiety
  • loss of self-esteem
  • isolation and guilt around socialising
  • frustration and stress
  • “baby brain” or “brain fog”
  • loss of libido
  • fatigue and exhaustion
  • poor quality of sleep
  • emotional volatility

These symptoms can generally be summed up in a sentiment familiar to many new mothers: “tired or wired”. This vacillation between feeling either overwhelmingly busy or crushingly exhausted can be difficult for new mothers to deal with, particularly when faced with the already existing stresses in their lives.

What can new mothers do to help their bodies recover after birth?

Fortunately, mothers experiencing postnatal depletion have no shortage of actions they can take to improve their quality of life. Some are as simple as improving diet, while others require more comprehensive changes to lifestyle.

Discover optimal micronutrition

While many women are now aware of the importance of various vitamins and minerals during conception and pregnancy, ensuring sufficient micronutrient intake during the postnatal period is just as crucial. New mothers should take the time to see a health practitioner for a full assessment; common deficiencies or imbalances include iron, vitamins B12, C, and D, magnesium, and copper.

Make powerful dietary choices

It can be difficult to eat well when dealing with the additional stresses of a newborn, but mothers have lots of opportunities to improve their health through food. Good sources of DHA, an omega 3 fatty acid that aids the nervous system and brain, are critical and include oily fish and algae as well as high quality supplements. It’s also essential that new mothers try to avoid empty carbohydrates such as refined sugars and grains; as always, nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods are best.

New mothers might consider taking an allergen test, as sensitivities and intolerances can change during and after pregnancy. Doing so can help to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

Build a support network

It sounds obvious, but new mothers should be encouraged to ask for help friends, family or professionals. While moms can sometimes feel like they are solely responsible for the care of their child, it’s important to remember that child rearing was a communal activity for much of human history. We are social creatures, and accepting help is part of that.

Enjoy physical activity for health and fun

While keeping physically active might seem the least of a new mother’s worries, taking part in relaxation-promoting pursuits such as yoga and walking can help to center the mind, release feel-good endorphins, and provide some much-needed relief from the stresses of taking care of a baby. Exercise can also be a social activity, making it a fun way to improve health and find new support networks.

Sleep soundly at night

There’s no way around it: mothers simply must get enough sleep to maintain good health after a new birth. These easy tips can help to make the most out of a night’s rest:

  • Switching off television and computer screens at least an hour before going to bed helps promote a better quality of sleep and also assists in clearing thoughts of stress.
  • Calming music, a good book, and herbal teas such as camomile can help the transition from a long day into a restful evening.
  • Treating the bedroom like a temple and reserving it as a place of recuperation and relaxation can make it easier to unwind and get to sleep at night.