Postnatal Depletion – When Annie met Oscar

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful Dr Oscar Serrallach and hear him speak about his work and book The Postnatal Depletion Cure. Big thank you to Alison Barker for introducing me to Dr Oscar’s wonderful work.

It’s funny how things happen just at the right time, for me this was very much a missing piece of the puzzle in terms of where I was at both personally and professionally.

Postnatal depletion can persist if not addressed and corrected. It can create the perfect platform for a whole host of health conditions including; hormonal imbalances, autoimmunity, chronic fatigue and mental health imbalances. Our food is not just fuel but holds information in the form of nutrients needed for the body to function optimally.

Some of what I write in this blog is taken from Dr Serrallach’s book (available from Amazon UK) and some is what I learnt from an inspiring morning spent with some beautiful people – all of whom are committed to changing the current culture to support mums.

What is Postnatal Depletion?

Postnatal depletion is a term Dr Serrallach uses to describe a constellation of symptoms affecting all spheres of a mother’s life after she gives birth. These symptoms arise from:

  • Physiological issues, hormonal changes and interruption of the circadian rhythm/sleep cycle
  • Layered with psychological, mental and emotional components.

I think Oscar uses a great analogy to explain this. Imagine your body as a plastic bag full of water. The more water in the bag the better you feel and the better you are able to cope. Each day of pregnancy, the birth, each sleepless night, each long day of breastfeeding, is like putting tiny pinpricks in the plastic bag. You can repair the holes, but it takes a little time. When there are only a few sticks of the pin, only a very small amount of water escapes the bag. This becomes problematic when the holes start to come more quickly than you can repair them. Such is the body after childbirth; when there are too many stressors and not enough time to recover, your levels become depleted. Depending on the severity of depletion, the postnatal period can last for years after the baby is born – you can be left with a bag so full of holes that it takes a long time to repair and refill. In the worst-case scenarios, Dr Serrallach has seen the depletion pattern occurring decades after.

None of this suffering should continue for this long!

This is something I have witnessed personally in my clinical practise prior to becoming a mum. I was seeing female clients with autoimmune conditions, such as hashimoto thyroiditis, anxiety and depression, low mental resilience, adrenal dysfunction and chronic fatigue. All these women reported not feeling the same since after giving birth. Pregnancy and birth appeared to be the turning point in their state of health.

What Does Postnatal Depletion Look Like?

Many mothers-to-be are already depleted leading up to conception and pregnancy. The extra demands of being pregnant, having a baby, and breastfeeding (all of which can affect the body for years) mean that mums require a lot of nutrients to recover and hit their stride again.

Symptoms include:

  • “Baby brain” (forgetfulness)
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Insomnia or disturbed/non-restful sleep
  • Loss of skin elasticity, dry skin, softer nails, thinning hair, increased translucency of teeth, receding gums and easier bruising
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Poor concentration
  • Emotional lability (rapid, often exaggerated changes in mood)
  • Feelings of isolation, inadequacy and vulnerability.

Contributing factors

It’s likely that even before you had children, you were operating at your capacity in terms of your busy schedule. Add pregnancy and birth to the mix, which both require huge amounts of physical resources, placing even more strain on your body, and top that with sleep deprivation and the stress of caring for a baby, and mums are left feeling overwhelmed, overworked, overstimulated and over-needed.

Dr Serrallach notes there are four main factors that cause postnatal depletion:

Stress

Women are constantly trying to be the perfect mother and wife, always making sure there is food for dinner, trying to spend time with friends and family, packing school lunch boxes and then trying to find a few moments for themselves. Financial worries about maternity leave and childcare also come into the mix, placing a huge amount of stress on mums.

Social

Unless you show signs of postnatal depression, the focus on postpartum care is almost always on the needs of the baby and not the mother, writes Dr Serrallach. “The only feedback a new mother is likely to get is in the form of cultural values, competitiveness and conflicting advice from other ‘parental drivers’. This is a guaranteed recipe for self-doubt and parental anxiety.”

Physical Predisposition

Predisposing factors that impact your physical and mental health also make you more vulnerable to experiencing postnatal depletion. “Being an older mother, for example, is a predisposing factor due solely to physiology, as older women take longer to recover from major events such as childbirth, are more sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation, and have hormones that are harder to regulate” explains Dr Serrallach.

Environmental

One of the biggest predisposing factors for postnatal depletion is environmental toxins. Dr Serrallach explains that a toxin is a substance that causes some part of the body to react in a negative way. He writes that the problem lies with your personal load of exogenous toxins (these enter your system when you eat or drink them, breathe them in or absorb them). “Your body is not efficient in clearing exogenous toxins – they usually require a lot of energy and resources to get out of your system. If you overload that system, the toxic load can take hours to clear, which is why you might feel OK after a small amount of alcohol but get a hangover when you consume more alcohol than your body can process. The more toxins you are exposed to, the more inflammation they will create, which means the longer your recovery time will be and you’ll be far less resilient to stress. If you used to recover relatively quickly from a bad night’s sleep, you’ll find it much more difficult to do so if suffering from inflammation triggered by postnatal depletion.

The Emotional Symptoms of Postnatal Depletion

Why do so many mums feel so bad emotionally after their beloved little babies are born? When there’s a new born baby the everyday logistics of feeding, dressing, cleaning, keeping everyone safe, and never mind being on time are and can be incredible overwhelming. And when combined with all the physical aspects of postnatal depletion the result can be profound and negative.

Dr Serrallach has identified these eight major emotions that emerge in the postnatal period:

  • Fear – commonly manifests as anxiety, an inability to cope, procrastination and or indecisiveness, and a sense of being easily overwhelmed
  • Anger – can fluctuate and is often internally targeted: it later manifests as guilt and shame
  • Sadness – while similar to depression, it is tinged with a sense of grief
  • Joy – a feeling of intense happiness, can be powerfully moving but can fluctuate like a yo-yo as many mothers know
  • Disgust – usually internally targeted as self-hate or self-loathing. Stems from feelings of inadequacy
  • Loss of trust – can manifest both in one’s own abilities and in the support that one, as a mother is receiving
  • Anticipation – is a forward-looking emotion that can manifest in either a positive or a negative way, depending on whether that which is being looked forward to is regarded with pleasure or with worry
  • Surprise – is a startle response that can be positive or negative

My approach through BeYouMum follows the same principal as Dr Serrallach’s, as we both ensure the Mother is always at the centre of the equation.

How Can You Start to Rebuild and Replenish?

I always recommend starting with diet – more so the nutritional content than the calorific.

Diet is complex and there may not be a one size fits all. What I do find important is that my mums (and mums-to-be) are prescribed a low-inflammatory diet. The most potent and quick (non-pharmaceutical) way to support the body in a healthy way is via the gut bacteria, or microbiome, with a healthy diet and proper supplementation.

The diet that usually works best for mothers is:

  • Rich in colourful, above-ground vegetables
  • Includes moderate amounts of below-ground vegetables (take caution with white potatoes, though—they are an anomaly because they have a very sugar-like effect on our metabolism)
  • Small amounts of in-season, naturally ripened fruit
  • Moderate amounts of good quality animal products
  • Liberal use of health-regaining fats, such as avocado, coconut, olive oil, butter, cacao butter, quality lards, and duck fat
  • Pre and probiotics are great for the microbiome. Raw fruits like blueberries are a good way to add prebiotics to your diet, and fermented foods are naturally high in probiotics.

The extra demands of being pregnant, making a baby, birthing a baby, and breastfeeding mean that mums require a lot of nutrients. Supplements help mums-to-be to reach optimal health before this process begins, and, post-baby, they can help mums to feel more like themselves quicker while supporting targeted nutrient needs.

Food can be good for the healthy maintenance of nutrient levels, but supplements are more often needed for mum’s requiring this level of replenishment. Through engaging with me for 1-2-1 support I can help you assess your individual nutrient and supplement requirements.

“The wellbeing of mother’s is the fabric from which the cloth of the future of our society is made.”

Dr Oscar Serrallach

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