When it comes to recovering from childbirth, the mental recovery can be about as arduous as the physical one.
Massive shifts in hormones, extreme sleep disruption and deprivation, changes in routine and identity, and some major rewiring of your brain as you transform into a mother can leave you feeling like you aren’t yourself.
While up to 80% of new moms experience the baby blues, 10-15% of new moms also experience postpartum depression – one of many perinatal mood disorders that often require treatment.
While a combination of prescription medications and therapy are one of the more widely used treatment options for postpartum depression, natural remedies – either on their own or in conjunction with traditional treatment methods like antidepressants – may provide some benefit.
That said, any and all treatment decisions should be made in conjunction with your care provider so you can take as good of care of your mental health as you do of that little baby.
What is postpartum depression?
The term postpartum depression (or PPD) refers to a depressive episode that shows up in new mothers anytime from a few weeks postpartum to up to three years after birth.
It can last months to years if left untreated, and often presents with other perinatal mood disorders, like postpartum anxiety or OCD. This combination of concurrent disorders and the fact that it can last so long if left untreated make it important to seek help if you feel you or a loved one are experiencing PPD.
How is PPD different from the baby blues?
Most new moms will experience some degree of the 'baby blues'. Typically showing up 2-3 days after birth, and often peaking around day 5, many new moms will find themselves crying for what feels like no reason, experiencing mood swings, feeling anxious or irritable, having trouble sleeping – just overall feeling out of sorts and unlike themselves. The baby blues typically pass in a week or two, and generally don’t require treatment.
PPD, however, doesn’t fade and also includes symptoms that can hint at a more major depressive episode taking place. Fatigue, loss of appetite, feelings of guilt, worthlessness or hopelessness, sleep disruption or oversleeping, restlessness, depressed mood, slowed movements or heaviness in the chest, intense feelings of sadness, feeling like you’re in a fog, trouble bonding with the baby – these can all be signs someone is dealing with something other than the baby blues.
What causes PPD?
The baby blues and PPD both have huge shifts in progesterone and estrogen levels to thank for part of their origin, although depression in general is an incredibly complex condition with several physiological factors that may play a role. A history of depression or anxiety before or during pregnancy, a difficult pregnancy or traumatic childbirth and low social or partner support are a few factors that can increase your risk of developing PPD.
Are there any natural remedies for treating postpartum depression?
For people who are working in conjunction with health care providers to treat PPD with natural remedies, there are some options that may be beneficial.
Vitamins and Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids: Studies have shown depression is less common in cultures where high levels of fish oil are commonly consumed, leading researchers to believe DHA and EPA (two forms of Omega-3 fatty acids) could help reduce the risk of developing depression (studies suggest it may be beneficial in treating it as well, but more research needs to be done). Along with cold-water fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts are listed as good sources of Omega-3s.
Vitamin D: There have been a few studies that identify low vitamin D levels as a risk factor for developing PPD and suggest boosting vitamin D levels can aid in the successful treatment of PPD. It remains unclear exactly what role vitamin D plays (there are too many variables and too few studies to answer specific questions) but it does seem to contribute to a successful recovery.
Saffron: While saffron gets mentioned often as a possible natural treatment for depression, human studies are lacking and results are inconclusive. It has, however, been identified as a potential natural treatment for depression and anxiety symptoms. (Here’s a study that explains what looks promising and why more info is needed.)
Turmeric (curcumin): Studies suggest curcumin - found in the spice Turmeric - could potentially be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression. Again, the how and why behind it (or pathophysiology if you want to sound sciency) has yet to be nailed down, but curcumin shows promise.
Magnesium: Studies show magnesium to be promising in treating depression, with or without additional medications. Check in with your healthcare provider to nail down the right dose if this is something you want to try.
B vitamins - Deficiencies of B vitamins have been linked to increased prevalence of symptoms of depression, although there isn’t conclusive evidence of exactly why this might be, so it’s unclear if boosting B vitamins will help treat depressive symptoms. This study, however, showed reduced rates of developing PPD when given vitamin B6 from week 28 through delivery.
Motherwort - There are far less scientific studies (especially using human subjects) regarding the potential benefits of using Motherwort to aid in the reduction of depressive symptoms, but there’s a lot of allegorical evidence that it may help ease symptoms of common postpartum mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Engage your parasympathetic nervous system - The long term stress of a depressive episode means the sympathetic nervous system is constantly on watch. Activities that can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system can help reduce feelings of stress and help lessen depressive symptoms. Mild exercise, yoga, meditation and deep breathing are all ways to help kick your parasympathetic nervous system into action.
Address underlying issues regarding spousal or familial support - A lack of familial or spousal support is one common factor in many PPD cases. Learning how to ask for and/or accept help may be beneficial to ultimately being able to meet your own needs and reduce depressive symptoms.
Bright light therapy - Studies suggest light therapy may be one way to help combat depressive symptoms. While researchers had very specific ways of exposing participants to bright light, getting outside is still listed as a way to combat depressive symptoms.
CBT (or just regular old therapy therapy) - Cognitive behavioral therapy is one way to treat depression and anxiety symptoms, and works by teaching you to change thinking patterns. That said, finding any qualified individual to talk to who can help you unpack the litany of physical and psychological reasons that may result in postpartum mood disorder is a super important tool to add to your toolbox, no matter how you’re trying to treat your PPD. (Wondering how to find someone? Getting Help for Postpartum Depression has resources for both Canadian and US readers at the bottom.)
What about prescription meds?
There is zero shame in using medication if you need it. Pharmacological treatment of postpartum depression can include an antidepressant medication (like an SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) as well as therapy to help you fully address all underlying causes of PPD. (Want to read more about what it's like to take an SSRI? Here's a piece about being on and eventually coming off Zoloft.)
Keep an eye out for scams
When researching this piece, it became abundantly clear that it is something people are searching for and capitalizing on. There are tons of companies out there selling vitamins and supplements claiming to help treat postpartum depression. Some may help, and some may just be a waste of money, so do your due diligence and read up on what’s in them before splurging on something that makes big promises. It’s also wise to clear any new supplements with your care provider to make sure they don’t affect any current medications or pre-existing conditions or negatively influence breastfeeding if that’s something you’re doing.
Vitamins and supplements may help, but more research is needed
The brain is incredibly complex and the origin of depression is multifaceted. While we may not know exactly how or why something helps us manage symptoms or even cure depression, there is promising research out there suggesting a number of compounds found in organic sources may contribute to the prevention and management of depressive symptoms – especially when used in conjunction with other treatment methods. Ultimately more research – specifically on humans – is needed before we can definitively say what natural remedies do or don’t help treat postpartum depression.
Have you had success in treating your PPD?
Let us know what worked for you in the comments below if you're comfortable sharing.
Our next reco: How I'm Preparing for Postpartum Depression - Before the Baby Comes