Will Sugar Take Away the New Baby Blues?

Eleanor, the daughter of a close friend, apologized for still wearing her maternity clothes when her mother and I went to her home to ooh and ahh over her adorable newborn.

“It’s crazy!” she said, pointing to her baggy pants and shirt. “In the two weeks since giving birth, I think I have gained 12 pounds. I can’t stop eating and I know it is not just because I am breast feeding. I don’t want any good stuff to eat, just doughnuts, cookies, ice cream and waffles drenched in syrup.”

When she left the room, her mother confided that her daughter had been very moody and complained of exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, and worried that she would not be a good mother. “She is also so irritable…When I offered to take care of the baby so she could get out of the house, she told me to stop giving her advice!”

The mother then whispered, since she heard the daughter returning, “She must have the Baby Blues.”

Postpartum blues, or baby blues, are not the same as postpartum depression, although some of the symptoms are identical. The ‘blues’ affect about 80% of mothers during the first week after giving birth, and the symptoms peak between days three to five. The mood swings, food cravings, fatigue, and depression are blamed on a decrease in serotonin activity due to the new mother’s estrogen and progesterone levels readjusting. In some ways, the symptoms are similar to PMS, which occurs at the end of the menstrual cycle when hormone levels are shifting. The postpartum blues disappear about two weeks after childbirth, but the exhaustion and fogginess may continue much longer until the mom and baby sleep through the night.

Postpartum depression, in contrast to these postpartum blues, can last for months; the symptoms are much more severe and require medical/ psychiatric interventions. Women with postpartum depression are usually treated with SSRIs, the antidepressants that increase serotonin activity, along with talk therapy and assistance in taking care of the baby and the household.

Postpartum blues are not treated with antidepressants because of their temporary nature. But this doesn’t mean that the new mother has to suffer the unwelcome feelings of sadness, fatigue, lack of focus, not feeling like herself, anxiety, or irritability even for a few days. Sleep helps with all of these symptoms.  One does not have to be a nursing mom to feel the effects of too little sleep and when it goes on for days? The confusion and mood swings that follow can be very distressing.  Waking every two hours to nurse during the night, and then getting up in the morning to carry on the tasks of taking care of the rest of the family is sufficient reason to exacerbate these ‘ blues’.

Women in our culture are given little or no time off to rest from childbirth and the demands of a family and even work. Other cultures, such as the Chinese, insist that a woman be secluded for 30 days with little to do except keep warm, eating high fat, nourishing soups and stews to sustain nursing, and sleep when not feeding the baby. In our culture, the postpartum blues can be minimized by helping the new mom with her family and household tasks so she has time to sleep, making opportunities for her to leave the house, and participate in a healthy, non-baby-centric world… and when she feels physically able, to exercise.

Eleanor’s appetite for sweet carbohydrates led her to yet another quick and effective way of improving her postpartum blues.  The foods she consumed were acting like edible tranquilizers, because their consumption increased the level of the good mood chemical, serotonin.  She was eating sugary carbohydrates to increase serotonin activity, but starchy carbohydrates such as  instant oatmeal, a bag of popcorn, or baked potato are just as effective.  The path from eating carbohydrates (except fruit sugar) to more serotonin is a little complex, but the end result is that after the food is digested, more serotonin is made and the edge is taken off all those distressing symptoms.  Eleanor was probably eating larger quantities of carbohydrate than she needed to; about 30 grams (120 calories in a fat free food) would have been enough to raise serotonin levels for about three hours. Two or three small carbohydrate snacks during the day and evening would have made her feel less edgy and depressed.

One caveat: the carbohydrates must be eaten on an empty stomach or at least two hours after eating protein.  When protein foods are digested, their amino acid contents prevent serotonin from being made by preventing one amino acid, tryptophan, from getting into the brain.

Eleanor must of course make an effort to eat the nutrient packed foods her body needs to recover from giving birth and to nurse. A diet of cookies and brownies is incompatible with the nutritional demands of her body. But eating carbohydrates should, by increasing serotonin, decrease stress and induce calmness and tranquility. Which is exactly what the mother and infant need.

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