It’s a pretty widely known and accepted fact that pregnant folks go through a ton of hormonal changes during pregnancy, after pregnancy, and when nursing, and that these hormonal changes can sometimes contribute to mood swings and postpartum depression.
But what about non-pregnant parents like dads, adoptive moms and dads, and parents in same-sex partnerships? We all know that having a brand new tiny person in your household results in very little sleep, but it turns out that chemical changes in the brain affect ALL parents, not just those who give birth.
A study done in 2014 looked specifically at gay dads and changes that occur in the brain when they became parents. In the 48 fathers studied, researchers found that MRI scans showed the amygdala (the area of the brain that processes emotions) was five times more active, and there was also increased activity in their cognitive circuits. These changes are nearly identical to the changes that occur in new hetrosexual parents. Researches also found that the more time dads (gay or straight) spent with their new babies, the more changes they experienced.
Another study done in 2014 out of Northwestern university tracked 10,000 men over 23 years, and found that for men who were living with their children and active in caregiving, “depressive symptoms increased by 68 percent during their child’s first five years of life.” The study also noted that men were less likely to seek care for depression than women, and was much more likely to go undiagnosed.
According to a study done in 2012, adoptive mothers and birth mothers experience postpartum depression at a similar rate—around 7 to 8 percent, and qualitative studies have shown that non-pregnant women in lesbian partnerships experience depression as well.
The fact is that studies (and common sense!) show that depression can happen in ALL new parents, including adoptive parents, same-sex partner (non-pregnant) parents, and in dads. Caring for an infant is HARD, no matter how that infant becomes a new member of the family. It’s important to remember that adoptive parents and family members who haven’t given birth need help, care (including self-care!), love, and attention too.
So let’s talk about the symptoms of maternal and paternal postpartum depression, and what you can do about it.
Keep an eye out for the following symptoms, in yourself and in your partner, and talk to your doctor if either of you begin experiencing them:
If a new parent exhibits any of the following symptoms of postpartum psychosis, it is considered a medical emergency—get help RIGHT AWAY:
ASK FOR HELP. I know, it’s easier said than done, especially given the stigma surrounding mental health issues. But consider this: the best way to take care of your new baby is to take care of yourself. Your baby needs the best YOU possible in order to thrive. If you’re not doing well, neither is your baby. Talk to your primary doctor, midwife, or a therapist. If that feels too difficult, make sure to talk to your partner, a trusted friend or family member, or contact a crisis line. The most important thing you can do is ask for help, and keep asking until you get what you need.
Keep in mind, while the natural remedies below may be effective as part of an overall plan of care and support, they do not replace the essential evaluation, assessment, and follow-up of a mental health provider. A mental health provider will be able to evaluate your symptoms and help you create a comprehensive prevention or treatment plan. They also provide an important safeguard against worsening symptoms and a spiraling inability for self-treatment. However, I strongly believe that these natural remedies for depression MUST be integrated with whatever treatment plan your healthcare provider suggests to give you the best possible outcome.
During times of extreme stress, the most important thing we can do is make sure our basic needs are met first: food, water, and rest.
Food is medicine
When you’ve hit the postpartum period, it’s easy to turn to processed, easy to prepare packaged foods. Add exhaustion, depression, and a needy baby into the mix and it becomes very challenging to prepare meals. During times of stress, change, and healing, your body uses up nutrients quickly. You need these same vital nutrients to balance your hormones, support neurotransmitter production (brain chemicals) in your brain, and essentially to feel like yourself. The more variety of nutrient-dense foods you can eat in your diet, the better chance you have of not having any nutritional deficiencies that could contribute to depression.
This is why meal prep BEFORE having baby is key. Preparing healthy freezer meals ahead of time is crucial so when you are short on energy or time to cook after baby comes, you know you’ve got it covered. There are tons of online resources for easy to prepare freezer meals that can be made in bulk and tossed in the crockpot. However, not everyone has the time, energy, or help to prepare meals ahead of time, and eventually you’ll run out! Here’s another time when it’s important to ask for help—let friends and family members know that you need help with meals, and let them know when you run out. I’m always amazed at how willing people are to help, but we just need to ask and tell them what we need and how they can actually help.
Checking out a meal delivery service is another great idea. There are so many options these days—everything from prepped & delivered ingredients that you put together yourself, to ready-to-eat meals delivered to your doorstep at the frequency of your choice. Some of my favorite meal delivery services include: Methodology, Green Chef, Sakara, Sun Basket, and Hungry Root. There’s also usually tons of local options, so check out your local area and see what’s available in regards to meal delivery options in your town.
As far as the food itself goes, make sure you’re eating lots of healthy fats which help to nourish your brain health. This includes avocados, coconut oil, grass-fed butter/ghee, olive oil, wild caught fish & seafood, pastured egg yolks, and raw nuts & seeds.
Another important tip is to up your protein. Eating small amounts of protein throughout the day helps keep blood sugar levels even and stabilize your mood. Grass-fed meat, free range organic poultry, pastured eggs, wild caught fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, along with slow burning carbs such as sweet potatoes, squashes, lentils, and non-gluten whole grains has been shown to boost production of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that has a calming effect.
Also try and limit your caffeine intake. While it may give you the pep you need in the morning, continuing to drink caffeinated beverages all day can leave you jittery, anxious, and unable to sleep, and can further suppress your serotonin levels. Instead, here’s a tip: keep a big jug of filtered water near you at all times (especially if you’re breastfeeding!). Try a big drink of water before you reach for caffeine—you may find that staying hydrated does the trick just as well as a cuppa.
It’s no surprise that lack of sleep has been linked to depression. And while sleeping may seem like an impossible feat with a newborn, when you go without quality sleep, your ability to function and mood are directly affected. There is truth in the statement, “sleep when the baby sleeps”. A quick little nap or even closing your eyes to rest or meditate for twenty minutes here and there is important when keeping up with the demands of a newborn. Turn your phone off or put it away, let the house be dirty, and just concentrate on getting as much rest as you can, whenever or however you can.
Exercise is truly one of the best ways to treat depression naturally. And, bonus points if you do it outside so you can get in some Vitamin D! Just 15 minutes of sunlight exposure three times a week minimum without sunscreen helps maintain your body’s Vitamin D requirements. Getting outside with your baby for a walk every day is a great start. If possible, aim for at least 90 minutes of outside exercise per week, but every little bit counts. If all you can manage is getting the two of you outdoors in your PJs on your back porch for 20 minutes, then do it! Work up to longer stretches of time, and be kind to yourself if what you feel like you need is more sleep instead.
These supplements work for women AND men equally, so ensure both partners are taking them:
Maca has been shown in studies to decrease anxiety and stress and majorly support adrenal health. It can increase energy, stamina, and mental clarity, and support the thyroid. Maca stimulates and nourishes the pituitary gland, acting as a tonic for the hormone system. When the pituitary gland functions optimally, the entire endocrine system becomes balanced, and a balanced endocrine system means that your body will be better at regulating stress hormones.
Rhodiola is an anti-stress herb that increases dopamine.
Ashwagandha regulates various systems in our bodies, and is known as both a calming and nourishing herb. It can help with anxiety, nervousness, fatigue, and brain fog.
Magnesium is also known for combatting anxiety and depressive feelings.
Omegatropic is a unique omega-3 formulation, combining a 1:1 ratio of EPA/DHA, along with glycerophosphocholine (GPC) in order to provide comprehensive support for various aspects of brain function.
Vitamin D changes to calcium in the body which encourages endorphin production and can depression.
Mood Stasis is a blend of vitamins and herbs that work synergistically to support a calm and positive mental outlook. It contains saffron and sceletium extracts, along with vitamin B12 and folate.
Set realistic expectations for yourself. Do what you can and leave the rest. Your house may be messy, YOU may be messy, but your health and your baby’s health are what’s most important. Understand that your needs may change moment by moment. Some days, a shower may feel like what you need most, other days you’ll want to skip the shower and just get another 15 minutes of sleep. On days where the inevitable mess is driving you crazy, let yourself clean, or ask your partner or a friend to clean for you. Listen to your body, and do what you need to in order to take care of yourself, even if it seems counter to advice you’ve been given. YOU know your body and yourself better than anyone else.
Stick to a routine. When we’re at our most depleted, even thinking of what our needs are can be overwhelming. Having a regular routine means that your muscle memory takes over, and the basics are taken care of so you can get to a place mentally where you know what your needs are. Structuring your routine around baby’s nap and feeding times can help. Even seasonal routines, activities or rituals done at particular times around the year can strengthen our sense of internal rhythm and resilience.
Avoid isolating yourself. Check in with your partner, family and friends DAILY about how you’re feeling. Spend time with other parents and ask about their experiences, in person or in online parenting groups. Knowing you’re not the only one awake at 3am feeding the baby can really help. Get multiple hugs daily.
Laugh regularly and laugh hard. I’m talking full-belly, can hardly breathe, you’ve never laughed so hard in your life kind of laughing. Visit with the people in your life who make you laugh, look at silly memes online, or watch your favorite comedies.
Looking to have a more in-depth conversation about becoming a new parent? Schedule a consultation with me!