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The surprising connection between gut health and postpartum depression


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Photo: Stocksy/Jayme Burrows

Conventional wisdom used to have it that the postpartum period was a joyous, magical time for all mothers—maybe with a dash of sleep deprivation and spit-up thrown in.

Fortunately, experts have finally become wise to the fact that many new moms experience some form of the “baby blues,” i.e. feelings of sadness, anxiety, and mood swings, soon after giving birth. And anywhere between 11 and 20 percent struggle with postpartum depression (PPD), which can develop any time during the first year after welcoming a baby—and can last and last.

Yet so many women still don’t get the care they need for many reasons, not least of which is that when simply getting out of bed feels impossible, scheduling an appointment with a mental health pro can seem insurmountable. Thankfully, science is continuing to explore ways to help moms manage symptoms associated with PPD, and even reduce their risk of developing it in the first place.

One place they’re looking? The gut.

The gut microbiome is about as buzzy as it gets these days—and it deserves all the attention. The trillions of bacteria produced in your intestines have a direct relationship with not only digestive health, but overall physical health and mental health, too.

The gut-brain axis is the two-way street.

That’s because the gut-brain axis is the two-way street. Communication takes place via the nervous and immune systems, with signals being passed back and forth between the belly and brain. When one is imbalanced, the other likely is too, says Ellie Cobb, PhD, a holistic psychologist based in New York City. So getting gut health in order before baby arrives is a good thing.

“Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet before and during pregnancy can even help reduce the chances of postpartum depression,” Dr. Cobb says. It’s important to note that, while one small Canadian study pointed to a potential link between diet and the prevention of postpartum depression, the connection is largely lacking in scientific support and more research needs to be done to draw definitive conclusions.

“The vast majority of the mother’s serotonin and dopamine is made in the gut.” – Shawn Talbott, PhD, nutritional biochemist

Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist in Salt Lake City, Utah, also points out that the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth can affect the gut-brain axis and vice-versa. “Gut flora changes quite a lot from pre-pregnancy, to mid-term, to delivery,” he says. “The vast majority of the mother’s serotonin and dopamine is made in the gut, so disrupted microbiome balance can influence her mood dramatically.”

Dr. Talbott generally tells patients to consider a probiotic during pregnancy and after (bonus: Certain strains may help with colic!), to eat as close to the Mediterranean diet as possible (loading up on antioxidant-rich polyphenols and flavonoids), and to get tons of fiber.

“Eating more fiber is the single most important approach for improving microbiome diversity,” Dr. Talbott says. “But adding prebiotic fiber supplements can augment those benefits and target the growth of ‘good’ bacteria.”

Of course, PPD is a super complex issue and gut health is only one possible piece of the puzzle. The most important thing is for women who are struggling to reach out to a mental health professional ASAP.  Because mom-ing is hard, and there’s zero shame in getting help.

Meet the doctor who believes the root of depression lies in the gut. And remember: PPD can look a heck of a lot more like anxiety than sadness

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