Everyone knows that a woman’s hormones go through some big changes during pregnancy. Hormones are at the root of all of our lovely pregnancy symptoms, and most women look forward to being rid of them when the baby is born. Unfortunately, the birth of the baby is only the first step in a cascade of hormone changes which can leave a woman feeling far worse than she did when she was pregnant. So what exactly happens to a woman’s hormones during the postpartum period? Here are some important things to know as you navigate life after childbirth.
Your hormone levels will drop from the highest they’ve ever been to the lowest they’ve ever been within a few days. Both the estrogen and progesterone levels in your body will drop dramatically following the birth of your child. This sudden decrease in hormones can feel like going through menopause and can cause a variety of accompanying symptoms such as hot flashes, anxiety, moodiness, sadness, and exhaustion. This phenomenon is the cause of the “baby blues” that you’ve probably heard about. Though your body’s estrogen levels should normalize within a few weeks, many women experience lasting effects of this severe drop in hormone levels for months and even years after having a baby. This is due to the fact that your body does not begin making progesterone again until after your first menstrual cycle, so your body can become “estrogen dominant” during this time. Breastfeeding women often do not experience their first cycle until six months postpartum or longer in some cases.
Estrogen Dominance Symptoms: Hair loss, depression, fatigue, anxiety, & menstrual problems when your period does return such as irregularity, heavy bleeding, and pain
Oxytocin (the bonding hormone) increases after delivery. Oxytocin production happens naturally following birth and can be increased even more through breastfeeding. This hormone can give our bodies some relief from the drop in progesterone, as it leaves us feeling happy and calm. It also turns on the famous “mothering instincts” that we’ve all heard so much about, which can make a new mother much more aware of dangers to her baby. This can cause an increase of anxiety and worry. The combination of increased anxiety and low progesterone have a complex effect on a woman’s mood and energy, and often leads to postpartum anxiety disorders.
Prolactin increases after delivery. You may know prolactin as the hormone responsible for milk production, but it also has an effect on dopamine, which is the chemical that gives us feelings of happiness and joy. Prolactin and progesterone have a synergistic relationship – progesterone counters the effect that prolactin has on our dopamine levels during pregnancy. Once progesterone levels drop after giving birth, the higher prolactin levels can actually be at the root for moodiness and sadness in the postpartum period.
Fatigue causes a spike in cortisol levels. Most parents don’t sleep much with a newborn at home, so fatigue is almost unavoidable. Fatigue causes a spike in our cortisol levels. High levels of cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone”, sends your body into a kind of survival mode. Symptoms include weight gain, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.
Childbirth can have a permanent impact on thyroid function. According to the American Thyroid Association, 5 to 10 percent of women get postpartum thyroiditis. Thyroiditis is a condition characterized by swelling of the thyroid gland. This inflammation initially causes hyperthyroidism (the body produces too much thyroid hormone) and eventually leads to hypothyroidism (the body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone).
- Hyperthyroidism symptoms include: fatigue, weight loss, rapid or irregular heartbeat, anxiety, insomnia, thin or brittle hair
- Hypothyroidism symptoms include: fatigue, sensitivity to cold, weight gain, muscle & joint pain, depression, and impaired memory
This condition, when left untreated, may be a primary reason that so many women experience postpartum depression, anxiety, and fatigue long after their children are born and they stop breastfeeding. While many are prescribed antidepressants, those are merely a band-aid to the main cause of their symptoms. The underlying condition of a thyroid issue is often left untreated for years.
So now that you understand the mountain of hormones you will be dealing with postpartum, what can you do to make this transition a little easier on your body?
- Eat a healthy diet – Your body needs to refuel after the exhausting process of creating life. Make sure you’re eating well and often, especially if you are breastfeeding.
- Keep taking your prenatals – Your body is depleted of so many vitamins and nutrients for the first couple of years following childbirth. Make sure to continue supplementing with vitamins, especially if you are breastfeeding.
- Make sure you have a strong support system – Make sure you have a good network of people around you. It’s okay to accept help from friends and family. Your loved ones, especially the ones that have had children, will want to help as much as possible. Let them.
- Try sleep banking – Sleep banking basically just means that you’re sleeping when your baby sleeps. You’re going to lose a lot of sleep at night, so you’ll want to try to make up for some of that during the day. When your baby naps, fight the urge to clean the house and try to get as much rest as you can. Your body will thank you for it.
- Get some “me time” – Get some time away from your baby to rest and rejuvenate. You may feel guilty about leaving at first, but I promise you will be a much better mom if you make time for self-care. Go to the spa, get a massage, get your nails done, or go to a yoga class. Figure out what “restful” means for you and make time for it.
- Find a mommy support group – It is so important to have a network of women that you can vent and ask questions to. Just having women in your life who have been in your shoes can be a huge relief for postpartum anxiety and depression. Being a new mother can feel very isolating and there is a huge learning curve, especially if you’re trying to do it all alone. Find your village and let them be confidants and mentors in this new journey called motherhood.