Postpartum depression (PPD) affects up to 20% of mothers. It has long term psychological effects on the mother and can lead to developmental issues for the child. Many new mothers are left to cope on their own because loved ones and medical professionals sometimes underestimate its impact.
Even as a country, the United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave1. That’s bad news for a couple but imagine what it means for a single mother. We’re culturally behind regarding how serious postpartum disorders can be, leaving PPD under recognized and often untreated. Fortunately, Chinese Medicine is a good place to start finding some help with PPD.
Every pregnancy is different. A lot of factors determine if one is more physically taxing than another like how smooth the pregnancy went, complications during labor, the age of the mother and whether she decides to breastfeed. If the body exhausts its resources at any time during or after pregnancy, physical symptoms can result but so can psychological ones like depression.
According to Chinese Medicine, this happens because all brain function including our state of mind is interlinked with how well the entire body works. Digestive health, in particular, is one of the pillars of physical and mental health. It acts as the center of all physiologic function by creating qi (cellular metabolism) and blood.
In Chinese Medicine, the digestive system is the day to day foundation for body and mind. Since pregnancy and postpartum have a strong emphasis on the mother’s ability to nourish the baby and herself, food therapy is a sensible place to start.
Unfortunately, conventional medicine and mainstream society often dismiss the therapeutic value of food. A lack of appreciation for food as medicine is even worse when it comes to mental health. Only about one-fifth of American medical schools require students to take a nutrition course and coursework is less than 25 hours for the entire 4 years2.
Conventional medicine has a strong inclination for drugs and surgery which are necessary but medical research has shown a connection between poor diet and preventable, often chronic, diseases. These studies reflect what Chinese Medicine has known for thousands of years and has lead to new branches in western medicine. Like in the realm of nutritional psychology, it is understood that what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain3.
Since the earliest recorded texts of Chinese Medicine, the foods we choose and the degree we assimilate them impact our ability to digest thoughts. When that is unbalanced, our state of mind may suffer. We may have difficulty focusing and there is a tendency toward anxiety and depression. If the digestive system can’t assimilate food, the mind may constantly overthink, ruminating on thoughts with no positive outcome.
When you consider the effects of poor nutrition on the brain, food as medicine takes on a greater role in the mother’s mental health. Fortunately, even simple, yet unprocessed, foods can help a lot. And especially during pregnancy and postpartum, what could make more sense than to provide the body and mind exactly what it needs?
The goal in Chinese Medicine is helping the patient choose the right foods that improve the quality of one’s digestion. But the question is what is proper food for a situation like PPD? You could probably find all types of “healthy” options at the grocery store; however, unless you know exactly what your body truly needs, it may do more harm than good for postpartum conditions. For example, salads and smoothies aren’t always healthy, especially when a person’s digestive system is already compromised.
Below are some general Chinese Medicine guidelines that work well for postpartum patients. These will help you to start incorporating new food guidelines without bothering with recipes if you don’t want to.
– Eat mostly warm, cooked foods that are easy to digest like homemade soups. Congees are also an easy to prepare traditional dish that help one recover after pregnancy or being sick.
– Make sure whole grains are well-cooked and easy to digest (try to reduce those with gluten).
– Eat small meals and snacks every 2-3 hours so as not to overwhelm your digestion.
– Eat foods that stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels, like those high with protein, good fats and foods with a low to medium glycemic load.
– Drink room temperature water between meals so it doesn’t dilute your naturally occurring digestive enzymes.
– Never drink ice water with your meals.
– Drink a small teacup of warm bone broth with your meal. If you are vegetarian, try making a tea with fresh ginger unless you have gallbladder issues.
– Use warm spices like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, nutmeg, black or white pepper, cardamom, orange peel, and fennel.
– Consider taking a high quality digestive enzyme and probiotic.
– Eat meals slowly and chew food thoroughly.
We also encourage weekly acupuncture treatments to help with PPD. One study showed that acupuncture with talk therapy worked just as well for PPD as fluoxetine—an SSRI4.