Post-natal depletion - a word I first came across in Dr Libby's book "Exhausted to Energized". I had finally found a word that perfectly described how I felt 6 months into motherhood. I felt so depleted, an exhaustion I felt deep into my bones. I was constantly sick, had endless bouts of mastitis, and just never felt good. Yes, my baby was doing well, and yes, I enjoyed taking care of her. Yes, sleep was sometimes minimal when Baby Zand woke several times at night. It wasn't post-natal depression, often identified by the pure overwhelming feeling of new motherhood. I was feeling more than just being tired from being awake at night, and taking care of a newborn. This was exhaustion I had never felt before, even in my worst adrenal fatigue days when I was personal training clients 15 hours a day.
When I went to see my doctor, and described how I felt, she just told me it was normal for a mother to feel this way, and let me go. Needless to say, I switched doctors after that experience. I know my body. I am very much in tune with it. And this was not feeling right. I don't need my medical provider to not care, and just sweep it under the rug. So I took matters into my own hands like so many other times.
Of course a certain exhaustion is normal with a newborn at home. It's a new routine and a new sleeping cycle to get used to. The mind-numbing tasks of nursing, burping, swaddling, and diaper changes can suck all energy out of you, plus adjusting away from your "normal" social and work life is an emotional upheaval.
However, there are other factors to consider that play into us new moms not feeling right. We often miss a really good village - a support network of family and friends. Yes, most people will offer some help, but everyone is always busy themselves, and no one really has time to devote to you entirely. In our international lives we often live away from family, and especially our own mothers, who would be such amazing help in these difficult times. Plus the social media pressure of being the perfect mom is overwhelming to say the least. I have yet to meet a mother, who doesn't struggle in one way or another. But only few are ever willing to talk about it. We always want to put on this brave face of "everything is fine", and we never really share. If we all shared, imagine what an amazing, supportive community we could build!
One part is the mental aspect of motherhood that leads to post-natal depletion. What I am really interested in though is the nutritional component. I have been fascinated by this for years, even before I became pregnant, and while I was still priming my body for pregnancy. I was in a very fortunate position that I took 4 years to get my fertility to the best point possible before we decided to conceive. I used that time to balance hormones, optimize my digestion and gut health, and fill up mineral and vitamin storages in my body. I went into my pregnancy at the peak of my health. But most mothers are not this fortunate. Possibly the pregnancy was an "accident" or you simply didn't really think about health before conceiving. So you may already be at an non optimal nutrient state before you conceive.
Now if your pregnancy was anything like mine, then anything healthy may have turned you off. I was not able to eat a single vegetable for the first trimester. I got so nauseous just thinking about green smoothies! I was the picture of health, and as soon as I was pregnant my body and mind suffered. Nevertheless, my baby was thriving, because it was using up my storages to grow. Even if your storages are minimal, your body is amazing at prioritizing your baby's health. Your body will take calcium from your own bones to build the baby's bones. Your body will take fats from your brain to build the baby's brain. And your body will suck all water out of every single cell to give to the baby. You get the picture. Your baby will be ok. You will start to get depleted.
Then comes the birth. No matter if you have a natural birth or a cesarean, you end up losing a significant amount of blood. Because most women already have a low iron count, we are often suddenly in an anemic state. Yes, our body will make new blood, and we will be fine. However, for that anemic period of time you will feel so exhausted and low, because iron is responsible for pumping energy giving oxygen through your body.
If you are nursing, again your body will take whatever it can and put it in the milk to give to baby. The baby is completely dependent on your milk for survival and growth, so all the sugars, fats, and proteins, as well as immune boosting cells will go to the baby. In my case a massive amount of stress was added on top with Baby Zand having health issues, and us spending endless time in the hospital. So many mothers go through seeing their baby in the NICU or in critical care, and they never ever think about themselves in this situation. Your body is just on survival mode, and immune system, clear brain function, and energy levels all just shut down. Even if you don't have health problems, other stress like going back to work, moving homes, financial issues or family feuds can all lead to unneeded stress that depletes you in this crucial time.
Can you see how all of this sets you up for extreme depletion and with that exhaustion? This is the point I reached at 6 months into motherhood, and I would say it took me a good year and a half to get out of it. I am finally starting to feel like myself again, now that Baby Zand just turned two. But I was lucky that I caught this early. Many mothers live with this "it's just normal state" for years, possibly even conceiving another child in this depleted state, making the cycle even worse.
Now you may ask, what can you do to get out of this state if you are suffering just like I was? Here are my top 5 tips:
1. Get your blood work done
Go see your doctor and get some blood work done. Check your thyroid function, and especially check your iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, Vitamin C, D, and B12 levels. You may need to supplement more than just a regular multi-vitamin to fill storages back up, so it's good to know where you are starting at.
2. Focus on nutrient dense foods
While cookies and crackers are quick and easy to grab rushing around with your baby, and give you a quick energy boost, they do nothing to fill up your nutrient storage. This is the time to focus on homemade meals, made with love, with whole grains, a ton of veggies, and some good fats. Batch cook once or twice a week, so you have plenty of nutrient rich food to just grab and go when you have no time to cook. There were plenty of times I ate this kale and lentil soup cold, slurping it while I was nursing. Still better than the cookies from the pantry! I loved smoothies in this time, because you can sip on them while nursing or on the run, as well as energy balls like my favorite lemon cashew balls with coconut.
3. Give yourself plenty of healthy fats
Good, healthy fats DO NOT make you fat! You do not have to fear healthy fats, thinking that if you go on a fat free, low carb diet quickly after giving birth you will just lose all the baby weight and feel like yourself again. Even if you do drop the weight, you will probably feel even worse, because your brain needs fat to get out of mommy brain mode. Our brain shrinks on average 5% when we are pregnant, using the fat to build the baby's brain. If we want to get our brain capacity back, and get out of mommy brain mode, we need healthy fats. This includes nuts, seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and virgin coconut oil. You can't have too much of these, as long as they are not accompanied by tons of sugar and salt like roasted salted caramel nuts :-)
4. Quality of sleep over quantity of sleep
Of course you will not be able to sleep as much as you used to with a newborn or kids in general. So focus on the quality of your sleep. When Baby Zand napped in those first few weeks (and even at month 6 I still did this), I would go and lie down. No phones, no screens, just in bed, closing my eyes, taking deep breaths. Either that would lead me into a short meditation or I would just fall asleep very quickly (most often the case). Of course it is tempting to check your phone to catch up with friends, and to scroll through social media to get a glimpse at the outside world. But the reality is that you need time to rest right now, not mindless scrolling time. I also found a cup of lavender tea and a real book would put me to sleep very quickly. Even if this was just an hour or so, it would still be so restful. Your body is exhausted and depleted. It needs the sleep, and the longer you deprive it of sleep, the longer the recovery will take.
5. Be selfish - allow yourself this time of recovery
I remember when I was in college, Heidi Klum had just given birth, and was back on the Victoria Secret catwalk a few weeks later. It scarred me for life. I always had this idea that we immediately need to bounce back to our old fabulous selves - body included - without even a sign of a newborn in our life. And I find that sadly this so misrepresents what birth and the post-natal period is about. We need this time to recover and rest, to replenish our storage, to regain energy, and to accustom to a new life with a baby. So above all, be selfish. Make this time about yourself, you deserve it for your own longterm health and sanity. Even if you discovered your post-natal depletion years after giving birth, allow yourself time to recover. No one can tell you how long you are "allowed" to take for this, take as long as you need.
If you are interested in more post-natal nutrition tips, come and join me for my post-natal nutrition talk on December 9th in Berkeley, CA. I would love to see you there.
Here is a to a healthy post-natal you!