The birth of a child is often one of the most joyous times in a woman’s life. But for some women, caring for a newborn can be clouded by depression. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every year, one in eight new mothers experience postpartum depression. Unfortunately, the CDC also reports that more than one-half of women experiencing postpartum depression do not receive treatment. (2)
Many experts agree that postpartum depression is likely undertreated because of the stigma attached to feeling depressed at such a joyous time. Most nursing mothers do not want to take an antidepressant, which is the standard of care in conventional medicine. (12) This article will review the variety of natural approaches that can be used to address postpartum depression.
What is postpartum depression?
Postpartum depression is much more than feeling sad, anxious, and overwhelmed. In fact, the only difference between postpartum depression and major depressive disorder is timing because postpartum depression symptoms coincide with the birth of a child. (4)
Signs of postpartum depression
Postpartum depression symptoms, which can occur within a few weeks or up to a year after the birth of a child, may include a combination of the following:
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fear of harming the baby
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Lack of attachment to the baby
- Lack of interest in daily activities
- Mood swings
- Significant sadness and crying
- Sleep disorders
- Suicidal thoughts (6)
There are also factors that can increase the risk of postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression risk factors
The following postpartum depression risk factors have been identified:
- Glucose metabolism disorders
- Hormonal issues
- Lack of social support
- Nutrient deficiencies, such as B6, selenium, and zinc
- Poor diet
- Previous history of depression or anxiety
- Risky pregnancy
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Younger than age 20 (6)
Having one or more risk factors may extend the duration of postpartum depression symptoms.
Effects of postpartum depression
Postpartum depression is a serious illness that can have damaging health effects on both mother and child. A 2019 systematic review looking at health outcomes for both mother and child of untreated postpartum depression found that:
- Mothers with postpartum depression were at an increased risk of postpartum weight retention, anxiety, relationship problems, and long-term mental health issues.
- Mothers with postpartum depression were at an increased risk of addiction and suicide.
- Infants of mothers with postpartum depression had difficulty gaining weight and had childhood illnesses more frequently compared to infants born to mothers who did not have postpartum depression.
- Infants of mothers with postpartum depression had difficulty sleeping, as well as reduced motor, cognitive, and language development.
- Infants of mothers with postpartum depression had more fear and anxiety and demonstrated more behavioral issues.
- Postpartum depression negatively impacted mother-to-infant bonding. (8)
Many women feel anxious and overwhelmed, experience sleep deprivation, and even feel sad after the birth of a child. These “baby blues” are normal and are usually resolved without formal treatment within weeks of the birth of the child. (10) A diagnosis of postpartum depression is different and often requires medical attention.
How long does postpartum depression last?
As with any illness, postpartum depression is highly individualized, and the length of time women experience symptoms can vary. According to a 2014 review, many cases resolve within three to six months; however, anywhere from 30 to 50% of the women evaluated met the criteria for postpartum depression one year after giving birth, and about one-half of those women were reporting depressive symptoms three years after giving birth. (11)
Postpartum depression treatment
Postpartum depression treatment interventions include prescription medications, cognitive therapy, support groups, and complementary therapies. (1) The most commonly prescribed type of pharmaceutical medication for postpartum depression is antidepressants. Two other pharmaceuticals, brexanolone IV and esketamine nasal spray, are sometimes used; however, both of those medications are not safe if the patient is breastfeeding. (9)
For patients who are interested in a more integrative approach, there are additional options. A 2014 review identified the following integrative interventions that have been shown to help with postpartum depression symptoms: (3)
- Acupuncture balances energy and, in the process, may also improve symptoms of depression. Bright light therapy has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, especially in cases of seasonal depression.
- Exercise has a positive effect on neurotransmitter function and is associated with decreased risk of depression.
- Massage has been shown to reduce circulating cortisol levels and increase serotonin and dopamine, helping to decrease symptoms of depression.
The scientific literature also reveals that targeted nutrients can help treat postpartum depression.
Folate in the form of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) can be effective if folate levels are low due to the fact that low folate levels are associated with an increased risk of depression. 5-MTHF also functions as a coenzyme in neurotransmitter metabolism, aiding in general mood support. (3)
Omega-3 fatty acids
S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe) is naturally produced in the body and has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression. SAMe also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects. (3)
St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has active compounds that can positively influence neurotransmitter activity and can act as a natural antidepressant. St. John’s wort also influences γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA), and serotonin activity. Note that St. John’s wort can interact with certain medications, so be sure to consult with your integrative physician prior to taking St. John’s wort if you are taking medication. (3)
Tyrosine and tryptophan
In an open-label 2017 study, the combination of tyrosine and tryptophan that were given soon after the birth of the child significantly reduced the risk of postpartum depression compared to women who did not receive the amino acids. (5)
Furthermore, correcting the following nutrient inadequacies or deficiencies, listed in order of importance, can reduce the risk of postpartum depression and help enhance treatment outcomes:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6
- Magnesium (7)
The bottom line
Dealing with depression can be challenging for anyone, but when you add in the emotional nuances and physical toll of pregnancy, postpartum depression can be even more difficult. Utilizing an integrative approach that includes correcting key nutrient deficiencies along with targeted use of dietary supplements may be an effective approach to addressing or preventing postpartum depression in the first place.
- Anokye, R., Acheampong, E., Budu-Ainooson, A., Obeng, E. I., & Akwasi, A. G. (2018). Prevalence of postpartum depression and interventions utilized for its management. Annals of General Psychiatry, 17, 18. https://annals-general-psychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12991-018-0188-0
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed 2020, August). Identifying Maternal Depression. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/vital-signs/identifying-maternal-depression/index.html
- Deligiannidis, K. M., & Freeman, M. P. (2014). Complementary and alternative medicine therapies for perinatal depression. Best practice & research. Clinical obstetrics & gynaecology, 28(1), 85–95. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3992885/
- DelRosario, G. A., Chang, C., & Lee, E. D. (2013). Postpartum depression: symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment approaches. Journal of the American Academy of Pas, 26(2), 50-54. https://journals.lww.com/jaapa/Fulltext/2013/02000/Postpartum_depression__Symptoms,_diagnosis,_and.9.aspx
- Dowlati, Y., Ravindran, A. V., Segal, Z. V., Steward, D. E., Steiner, M., & Meyer, J. H. (2017). PNAS, March 13. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/03/07/1611965114
- Ghaedrahmati, M., Kazemi, A., Kheirabadi, G., Ebrahimi, A., & Bahrami, M. (2017). Postpartum depression risk factors: A narrative review. Journal of education and health promotion, 6, 60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5561681/
- Mermer, M., & Sanlier, N. (2017). Correlation between postpartum depression and omega-3, micronutrients. Journal of Reproduction, Contraception, Obstetrics and Gynecology, 6(11), 4737-4743. https://www.ijrcog.org/index.php/ijrcog/article/viewFile/3619/2907
- Slomian, J., Honvo, G., Emonts, P., Reginster, J., & Bruyere, O. (2019). Consequences of maternal postpartum depression: a systematic review of maternal and infant outcomes. Women’s Health, 15, 1-55. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745506519844044
- US Department of Health and Human Services. (Accessed 2020, August). Office of Women’s Health Postpartum Depression. https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/postpartum-depression
- US National Library of Medicine. (2020 June 26). Medline Plus Postpartum Depression. https://medlineplus.gov/postpartumdepression.html
- Vliegen, N., Casalin, S., & Luyten, P. (2014). The course of postpartum depression: a review of longitudinal studies. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 22(1), 1-22. https://journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2014/01000/The_Course_of_Postpartum_Depression___A_Review_of.1.aspx
- Werner, E., Miller, M., Osborne, L. M., Kuzava, S., & Monk, C. (2015). Preventing postpartum depression: review and recommendations. Archives of women’s mental health, 18(1), 41–60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4308451/