Natural solutions for postnatal depression
Two in every ten mothers experience postnatal depression, but many mothers assume their struggles are just part of motherhood or they don’t know where to go for help. This blog explains why some mothers develop postnatal depression, and where you can go for support, including your doctor and other healthcare or complementary medicine professionals.
POSTNATAL DEPRESSION OR BABY BLUES
The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) defines postnatal depression as a major depressive episode, experienced by the mother, commencing within six months of her baby’s birth.
The condition, estimated to affect 13% – 19% of mothers, is the most common complication of childbirth and can negatively affect your child. Postnatal depression is distinct from the commonly experienced “baby blues” and the more rare postpartum psychosis.
Symptoms of postnatal depression include low mood, extreme sadness, low energy, anxiety and irritability, appetite disturbances, and insomnia. In some cases postnatal depression includes suicidal thoughts and thoughts of harming your baby.
CAUSES OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION
After the birth of your baby your steroid hormone levels drop dramatically, in particular progesterone, oestrogen and cortisol. All mothers experience this drop in hormones but only some mothers develop postnatal depression. It is therefore suggested that it is hormone in balance rather than the drop in hormones per se that is key.
- Cortisol & hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis
Cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands (that sit on top of your kidneys) in response to stress. When too much cortisol is produced it can cause sub-optimal levels of other hormones released by your hypothalamus to be produced. Stressful life events before pregnancy, during pregnancy or once your baby is born can therefore lead to hormonal in balances and postnatal depression.
- Neurotransmitter levels
Steroid hormones, progesterone and oestrogen, play a role in the production of serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters in your brain. Serotonin influences sleeping, appetite and mood. Disturbance in serotonin production and lower levels of serotonin have been found in mothers with postnatal depression. Withdrawal of dopamine due to decreases in oestrogen after the birth of your baby can also lead to depression.
- Thyroid function
Your thyroid hormones also drop after the birth of your baby and whilst it’s not been directly linked to postnatal depression, low levels of thyroid hormones can cause depression. Ask your GP to check your thyroid hormones if you think you are suffering from postnatal depression.
- Iron and Vitamin D deficiency
Lack of iron and vitamin D in your diet can also be related to postnatal depression.
Research suggests that psychological vulnerabilities, for example your level of positive self-regard before and after the birth of your baby, combined with stressful events can predispose you to developing postnatal depression. If you’ve had a previous episode of depression, postnatal depression or severe premenstrual syndrome it can also leave you vulnerable to developing postnatal depression.
If you feel alone, with poor social support, or a challenging relationship this can also make you vulnerable to developing postnatal depression.
CONVENTIONAL TREATMENT APPROACHES
For mild to moderate postnatal depression
The NICE guidelines recommend “facilitated self-help” including lifestyle changes and talking therapies. These are found to be most successful when delivered by a health professional (not usually a psychotherapist), and often in the mother’s home.
For moderate to severe depression or mothers with a history
of postnatal depression or depression during pregnancy
The NICE guidelines recommend a higher intensity psychological treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy along with an anti-depressant. There is some concern that the anti-depressant is transmitted to the baby during breastfeeding but research suggests that two serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (Sertraline and Paroxetine) have a good safety profile. However, using drugs alone is strongly discouraged, as this does not address the underlying causes of your postnatal depression or avoidance strategies for future pregnancies.
NATURAL TREATMENT APPROACHES
For many mothers it is really valuable just to talk to someone about how they’re feeling. It can sometimes be difficult to go to friends and family; if this is the case, speak to a health professional you trust (not necessarily your doctor but a health visitor or a complementary therapist), they may be able to point you in a direction right for you.
- Mother massage
Receiving a massage decreases the amount of cortisol your body produces and increases levels of dopamine and serotonin. In so doing it can help with postnatal depression. Pregnancy massage has also been shown to reduce the likelihood of developing postnatal depression in vulnerable mothers. Massage from a partner can be especially effective. Choose a couple of essential oils that make you feel good and add a few drops to some base oil. We offer Arvigo® therapy (a form of Maya massage) that is particularly good for pre and postnatal problems with your reproductive or digestive organs as well as your emotional wellbeing. If you would like to find out if we can help you give us a call on 07864 945 086 or visit the resources page of our website for other local massage therapists.
- Baby massage
Research suggests that massaging your baby can help reduce some of the symptoms of postnatal depression. It is certainly good for developing a strong bond with your baby that can be challenged if you experience postnatal depression. Attending a group session can also help build relationship with other mothers and help reduce your isolation. Visit the resources page of our website for local baby massage groups/therapists.
- Other relaxation techniques
Mindfulness techniques during pregnancy and after the birth of your baby have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. The techniques also allow you a space for yourself where you can listen in a calm place to what is going on inside your body and mind.
- Mother massage
You may want to ask your GP to check your iron and Vitamin D3 levels if you’re feeling depressed as deficiencies are linked with depression. Make sure you’re consuming lots of vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables), pulses, nuts and seeds, and lean red meat, chicken and fish. Lack of sleep stimulates the brain to produce a hormone called ghrelin that increases desire for carbohydrate rich foods. Often these foods lack iron and may be contributing to anaemia as well as upsetting your blood sugar levels. Vitamin D3 comes primarily from sunlight and a deficiency is best remedied through a supplement, and try to get out in the sun for 20 minutes a day.
Herbal medicines contain biological compounds similar to those in the human body. They can therefore help treat some of the underlying causes and symptoms of postnatal depression as effectively as anti-depressants and are safe to take whilst pregnant and breastfeeding.
Korean Ginseng (Panax ginseng) has a long tradition of use in Chinese Medicine for breastfeeding mothers. Its traditional use is also supported by research on its beneficial effects on stress reduction via the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has also been shown to be an effective natural alternative to conventional anti-depressants, with fewer adverse effects.
There are many other herbal medicines, such as oat straw and vervain, that have a long traditional use for postnatal depression (showing that it is not a modern phenomenon), all with a different focus – some on raising mood, others on reducing anxiety, others on supporting sleep. If you think you are suffering from postnatal depression it is best to seek the advice of a qualified Medical Herbalist. This is because they will be able to guide you on whether herbal medicine is the right route for you, the most appropriate dose, and support you with lifestyle and dietary factors that may be influencing your postnatal depression.
We are qualified Medical Herbalists, if you would like to find out if we can help you give us a call 07864 945 086.
There is anecdotal evidence from mothers that placentophagy, or eating the placenta, helps to reduce postnatal depression (as well as boosting energy and helping with breastfeeding). As a result placenta remedies and placenta encapsulation is becoming more popular, especially after celebrities January Jones and Kim Kardashian advocated it for postnatal depression.
There is historical evidence from Traditional Chinese Medicine of the placenta being used to boost vitality (though not often for the mother) and whilst compounds do exist in the placenta (iron, vitamins and hormones) that account for these effects theoretically, research has not yet confirmed its benefit beyond placebo (though the power of the placebo and empowerment for new mothers should not be underestimated). Further research is required to identify the best way to preserve these compounds, the bioavailability of these compounds and their effectiveness in helping with postnatal depression.
Improving the health of your gut
Whilst there are not as yet any studies relating specifically to post-natal depression and gut health, it is now widely theorised that the health of your gut can have an influence on your emotional wellbeing (more info). Check out our blog about your digestive system for some solutions that may help you.
The positive effect of exercise on depression is well documented. However, the effect of exercise on postnatal depression is less well researched, and the relationship appears less clear. Positive results have been found when mothers engaged in exercise with other mothers, for instance in “pram walking” groups, where mothers exercised and also experienced contact with other mothers.
If you think you’re experiencing postnatal depression, please share this with someone, either a friend or family member, your GP or another health professional you can trust. There are many therapies available that can help you.
We regularly publish blogs like this. If you would like to receive future blogs please sign up to our monthly e-newsletter sign up here