Having a child has a huge and profound impact on a woman’s life and health. The physiological changes that occur during pregnancy and after birth have a very real impact on every new mother’s physical and emotional wellbeing; whether she’s done this before or it’s her first time around. Often, the significance of these changes is not adequately factored into postnatal care and women find themselves running on empty for months and sometimes years after the birth of their babies. Not only is this detrimental to the health and wellbeing of mothers but impacts on children and partners too.
Several years ago, Dr Oscar Serrallach coined the term ‘postnatal depletion’ to describe the physical and emotional exhaustion that presents in many women after growing, birthing and raising children. Something that we can attest to, having seen it many times in clinic!
Postnatal depletion is more than just tiredness from broken sleep (although that certainly doesn’t help!) It is a complex interplay of hormonal, nutritional and environmental factors resulting in significant depletion. From a Chinese medicine perspective, pregnancy and birth draw heavily on Jing – or essence – our deepest source of energy; and mothers are recommended to have a dedicated period of time after birth to restore and rebuild this energy.
What does Postnatal Depletion look like?
The most common complaint of postnatal depletion is exhaustion – a deep sense of fatigue.
This is often accompanied by some or all of the following: anxiety, rumination, a sense of overwhelm, feeling ‘foggy’ and unable to concentrate.
Immune function may be affected too, leaving women more susceptible to recurrent infections; everything from mastitis to coughs and colds.
Existing health conditions may also be worsened by postnatal depletion, for example, thyroid function or digestive conditions such as IBS.
How to combat Postnatal Depletion?
Happily, there are many things that new mothers and their families can do to combat postnatal depletion.
As the old adage goes, prevention is the best cure. Planning ahead, from preconception and through pregnancy is ideal. This means eating well, with a varied diet that is nutrient dense and especially rich in good fats, zinc and iron food sources. Where necessary, supplementing essential nutrients is also recommended, to ensure both mother and baby receive everything they need. Managing existing health conditions and receiving regular physical treatments, such as acupuncture, is also highly beneficial for physical and emotional wellbeing.
Postnatally, nutrition continues to play a hugely important role in supporting the health and wellbeing of new mothers. Avoiding excessive sugar and processed foods is a must. Stocking the pantry and freezer with nutrient-dense, healthy food options, or having a meal-train setup with family and friends can make a significant difference. Basically, any way that makes it easier to eat well and helps to reduce the mental load of food planning and preparation will support a depleted mother (and her family!) Ensuring main meals include a good source of protein and aiming to incorporate foods that are rich in healthy fats, B-vitamins, magnesium and iron can also help immensely. This can be as simple as a regular pot of chicken and vegetable soup or morning smoothie with fruit, nuts and yoghurt.
Vitamin and mineral supplementation can also play an important role in addressing deficiencies and supporting energy production, hormonal balance and overall health. This should be tailored to each individual woman’s needs.
In Chinese medicine, the key elements to postnatal support focus on ample rest and nourishing food, keeping warm, minimising stress wherever possible, along with massage, acupuncture and moxibustion to promote healing and nourish the mother.
Acknowledging the significant transition of this time and the changes that a woman has undergone through the process of pregnancy and birth is also essential. Removing any expectations of jumping straight back into normal life routines is important. Around the world, in many different traditions, the weeks and months following birth are honoured as a special time in a mother’s life. Traditionally, a community network made up of family and friends forms an essential part of women’s healthcare, both before and after the birth of a child. These days, however, many of us live outside such close-knit communities and lack the ‘village’ support that is absolutely necessary during the weeks, months and years following the arrival of a child.