The Best Diet For A Mum’s Mental Health
When a big life change (like the arrival of your little one) knocks your mental health askew, a shift of focus to your digestion can give you insights which help you regain mental resilience, a calmer state of mind and a more positive mood.
Coping With An Unexpected Change To Your State Of Mind
For many new mothers, a change in their mental health is something which comes as a complete shock. There is still a huge amount of pressure from society for mums to be radiant, coping well, and head over heels in love with a newborn right from the onset.
But when reality is very different, and you feel knackered, anxious, tearful, overwhelmed, disconnected and sleepless AND that these feelings are unbearable and far stronger than expected, then it might seem that a prescribed medication – just to smooth over the edges and restore a more positive outlook – is the best option available. Other remedies may come to your attention, such as vitamin D and omega-3 supplements. These are often recommended during pregnancy and when breastfeeding particularly as low status is associated with poor mood and mental well-being. 
There is no question that prescriptions and supplements can help provide some immediate respite if you’re a mum who is feeling under pressure. However, they might also be a cause for concern. You may feel wary about taking pills – worried about how you’ll feel when you complete your prescribed course, or fearful that you’ll need to continue taking such medications for a longer period of time.
If this is the case you’d probably have a question like this on your mind:
“If my state of mind and mental wellness has changed and I’m looking for a solution, are prescription medications and a handful of supplements the only viable options?”
Given that I’m wearing my Nutritional Therapist hat, you’ll probably expect me to give an answer like this:
“Yes, there are other options to explore – for instance your diet plays a huge role in your mood and well being.”
However, I’m not just thinking about healthy omega oils, and protein and vitamin D. In fact, the ways that your food choices can affect and support your mental health may come as a complete surprise to you.
Why Your Mental Wellbeing Is Typically Approached ‘From The Neck Up’
One of the peculiar things about how mental health is approached is that many therapies are based on your symptoms. For instance you might feel low in mood or anxious, your sleeping patterns could be disturbed, your brain might feel foggy or you find it hard to focus, sometimes you could struggle to remember things, or you might feel weepy, disconnected or blue.
This ‘from-the-neck-up’ symptomology can lead to a brain-centred therapeutic focus, which means that the first thoughts often alight on fixing brain chemistry. Your levels of the major brain chemicals such as noradrenaline, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, or GABA may be presumed to be out of balance. Low mood? That’s probably a serotonin issue. Heightened anxiety? Adrenaline and noradrenaline may be at fault.
So a doctor might prescribe antidepressants, tranquillisers, CBT or even shock therapy; a nutritionist might recommend amino acids, vitamin D, omega oils and eating a variety of ‘good mood foods’.
For some people these are effective but for many others the outcomes are underwhelming. Why might this be?
Well, if you consider the intricacies of these chemical connections AND that most treatments and therapies are based on the symptoms that you report AND that assumptions are then made as to how your neurotransmitter levels may be unbalanced but these are never confirmed with a functional test, you get a glimpse of a reasonable answer.
Current best treatment and therapy involves a fair amount of guesswork. In many situations attention tends to focus in just one place – that’s right, above the neck.
I suspect this is why it can be surprising to learn there are many other factors which affect how you feel, think and focus. As the research and evidence continues to grow indicating that intestinal health, levels of inflammation, exposure to infections, dysbiosis and genetic makeup can all influence your mental wellbeing, this understanding might become more commonplace.
Digestion and absorption, inflammation, infection, microbial balance and genes.
How do these relate to diet, pregnancy and your mental health in general? And more importantly, how can you ensure that their impact on your mind state isn’t being completely overlooked?
5 Overlooked Factors Which Affect Your Mental Health
Let’s briefly explore several of the factors which affect your cognitive processes. You’ll quickly notice that many of them fall outside of the ‘neck-up’ expectations for mental health.
A perfectly healthy intestine is a highly effective barrier. It forms a membrane which allows the selective absorption of molecules from the outside world.
It’s easy to imagine your ideal absorption processes if you think of a wall made of cubes; each wrapped in a fine layer of muslin and stacked on top of another, spreading as far as your eye can see. There are really only two ways for a substance to get from one side of this cube-wall to the other: either by passing through the fine muslin membrane or squeezing between the cubes.
When everything is in order this wouldn’t be such an easy process but imagine what types of substance could pass if the muslin wasn’t so fine or had a few gaping holes or if the edges of the cubes didn’t quite align.
In certain circumstances, this is what can happen to the walls of your intestine – they become more permeable and allow all manner of substances to leak through.
The intestinal cell wall and the blood brain barrier develop from the same embryonic tissue. In adulthood, having increased intestinal permeability may be indicative of having increased permeability to your brain, and the same mechanism which increases permeability is suggested to work between the two areas .
Chronic intestinal inflammation, impaired cognitive function, and other symptoms which are not located in the gut often go hand in hand.
Consider people with digestive inflammatory conditions, such as IBD, IBS, Chrohn’s disease. When in a crisis their symptoms flare up, and they may experience abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea. However, there are also reports of pain in the joints, brain fog, depression and other altered moods. Symptoms associated with these inflammatory conditions are not solely restricted to the digestive tract.
It seems counterintuitive to conclude that there isn’t a link between a change in your mental health after your pregnancy and inflammation in the gut. (There’s more on this in a moment). This also makes it worth considering if an anti-inflammatory diet can help.
Sometimes, symptoms are red herrings. They suggest one scenario but in reality it’s the complete opposite case.
In the typical biochemical pathway, dopamine-converting enzyme does what it says on the tin; it drives the conversion of dopamine into adrenaline and noradrenaline (NA). If the activity of this enzyme is interrupted, dopamine rises while adrenaline and NA fall. This might be experienced as paranoia, anxiety, emotional eating and constipation (excess dopamine) and brain fog, memory loss and fatigue (depleted adrenaline).
Unfortunately, these overlap with symptoms of low dopamine levels – fatigue, constipation, lack of focus, anxiety – you might recognise them as Parkinson’s-like symptoms. This means that a treatment strategy based on these symptoms that elevates dopamine levels would be ineffective half of the time.
100% fishy. Symptoms can be deceptive.
Dopamine-converting enzyme can be inhibited by your genetic make-up. It can also be down-regulated by mycotoxins or an intestinal infection of clostridia bacteria. This is one way in which a bacterial infection can contribute to symptoms of altered mood. 
This is a fancy way of describing the mix of good and bad bacteria in your digestive system, but when they’ve shifted to a less desirable state rather than a balance that promotes good health. The field of psychobiotics – how the constituents of your bacterial environment influences your mood – is at the forefront of therapeutic treatments.
In their recent review of studies on good bacteria and the two-way connection between the brain and intestines, researchers Liu and Zhu commented:
“All of these studies indicate that the constitution of intestinal microbiota may present a bi-directional relationship with mood disorders.” 
Methylation is a natural process which uses different ingredients in different chemical reactions and within 5 steps creates a methyl group. The effect of making methyl groups is akin to putting oil or gas in your car. They drive over 250 chemical reactions in the body including synthesis of thyroid hormones, synthesis of immune cells, liver detoxification processes, the maturation of red blood cells as well as the creation and break down of brain chemicals.
Your methylation capabilities are largely determined by your genetic makeup, but whether you experience the effects of poor methylation – fatigue, weight gain, poor detoxification, impacted mood and memory – is heavily influenced by your diet and lifestyle choices.
Why Pregnancy May Put You on The Fast Track To Your Tipping Point
So how well you methylate, the balance between your ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria (dysbiosis), infections, level of inflammation and the health of your gut are some of the key contributors to your mental well-being.
If your normal set up is for these to be slightly disordered, you may unwittingly have created the perfect ‘mental health storm’. Pregnancy and caring for a growing family may be enough to unravel the threads.
Sleepless nights can increase stress and decrease methylation. Swirling hormones increase the demands on the liver’s detoxification processes. Fatigue may increase your reliance on packaged processed foods. Then there are food and sugar cravings, morning sickness, increased insulin sensitivity and dietary restrictions and recommendations to consider. These can all add up to a diet that promotes a more inflammatory state. On top of this there are the increased nutrient demands that come from nourishing yourself, a developing embryo, and then a growing infant.
Pregnancy creates huge physical, emotional and nutritional demands and many of these are tied in with your general mental health. That many mothers experience affected mood states after giving birth isn’t such a shocker. According to NHS statistics, 1 in 10 women experience postnatal depression, as do 1 in 10 men following the birth of their child .
Beyond Prescriptions, Beyond Supplements – Adapting Your Diet For Better Long-Term Mental Health
So what might this mean in terms of your mental health, particularly if you’ve found that after pregnancy there are aspects of your mental well-being you’d like to support?
I believe if you are able to look beyond medication, supplements and brain chemicals there could be many fruitful avenues to explore. You might start by considering your digestive health and how your current eating patterns and activities contribute to your digestive health.
- Is inflammation an issue?
- Are you a poor methylator?
- Are you exposed to microtoxins or heavy metal?
- How frequently do you go to the loo?
Introducing a style of eating and activities to encourage better digestion, support sleep and manage stress might be appropriate for you.
In fact, next week let’s take a closer look at what this could involve.