Motherhood is one of the best gifts any woman can experience, but it can also take a huge toll on your body − both emotionally and physically – and not just for the first few months after giving birth. Some moms still feel run down, lethargic and deeply fatigued years after giving birth.
Tamara Zanella, a counselling psychologist in both South Africa and the UK, explains that while postnatal depletion is not a diagnosable condition yet, it is a concept proposed by Dr Oscar Serrallach, a general practitioner from Australia and author of The Postnatal Depletion Cure. “He suggests that many women may struggle after having a baby, because of the emotional and physiological demands pregnancy, childbirth and raising a child takes on a woman. He also suggests these effects can be felt for up to 10 years after having a baby.”
Postnatal depletion explained
Firstly, it’s important to understand that postnatal depletion and postnatal depression are not the same condition. “Postnatal depression is a diagnosable physiological disorder that can be diagnosed up to one year post-birth. Symptoms include a persistent low mood, loss of interest and enjoyment, lack of energy and feeling tired all the time, yet having difficulty sleeping, isolating and withdrawing, difficulty bonding with baby and difficulty concentrating and making decisions,” explains Tamara.
Dr Serrallach explains that postnatal depletion is 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 of a mother’s sleep cycle, layered with psychological, mental and emotional components.”
Signs and symptoms
Postnatal depletion may start during pregnancy due to the amount of fat that is needed by the developing foetus, which leaves a mother with lower levels of a number of fats and other nutrients post-birth, says Tamara. About 7g of fat pass from mom to baby every day while your unborn baby’s brain undergoes the most significant stage of development during the third trimester. This transfer of DHA fatty acid is essential for the baby, but it can leave the mother depleted.
Added to this, Dr Serrallach believes the demands of work life and societal pressures as well as sleep deprivation can all lead to postnatal depletion.
- “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.
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 moms are left feeling overwhelmed, overworked, overstimulated and over-needed.
Dr Serrallach notes there are four main factors that cause postnatal depletion:
Women are constantly trying to be the perfect mother and wife, always making sure there are groceries 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 moms.
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.”
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.
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.”
7-step recovery plan
Dr Serrallach says recovery from this syndrome would include nutritional and physiological aspects, as well as ensuring that mothers have adequate, ongoing support – both practical and emotional.
If you are feeling depleted, try the following:
- Eat as well as you can, both during and after pregnancy.
- Take a good quality fish oil supplement.
- Increase your intake of good fats and proteins such as bone broth, oily fish, nut butters or avocado.
- Eat plenty of nutrient- dense vegetables.
- Limit your intake of processed foods.
- Get some exercise. It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous.
- Try getting more sleep (this is easier said than done if you still have small babies, but try and find a way to ensure you get a little more rest).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – whether it’s with the housework, groceries or taking kids to school.
- If you’re feeling overwhelmed and aren’t coping, speak to a professional about your feelings.
The Postnatal Depletion Cure by Dr Oscar Serrallach is available online from takealot.com and at selected Exclusive Books stores.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day.