Postpartum Depression: Why Your Gut Health Matters

Our gut microbiomes (the bacteria and other microorganisms—like yeasts and viruses—that live in our digestive tract) have profound effects on our mood and overall health. Gut microbes help regulate the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, and send messages to our brains through an intricate communication network. Imbalances in our gut microbiome, for example, overgrowths of harmful bacteria (called dysbiosis) or a lack of diversity in bacterial species, can lead to mood issues like depression and anxiety, among a host of other health impacts (1). We now know that during pregnancy and the postpartum period our microbiomes undergo significant changes in both amounts and diversity of bacteria, and these changes may contribute to conditions like postpartum depression and anxiety (2). Mapping the gut microbiomes of women who experience postpartum depression and other mood disorders is a new area of study, but advances in this type of research may have profound implications for how postpartum depression is diagnosed and treated. For example, one recent study showed promising results regarding the effects of probiotics on reducing the incidence of postpartum depression (3).

Inflammation in the gut can also travel to the brain through the gut-brain communication network. Women with higher levels of inflammation markers after delivery seem to be more likely to experience symptoms of postpartum depression (4). Fostering a healthy gut microbiome can help regulate inflammation by maintaining the integrity of the gut lining and preventing a condition known as “leaky gut,” a condition in which food molecules, bacteria, and toxins from the small intestine pass through the intestinal lining into the blood stream. The body responds to these substances as foreign invaders, mounting an immune response and leading to inflammation throughout the body (systemic inflammation). Pregnancy and childbirth in and of themselves may produce systemic inflammation, so regulating gut inflammation during these times is especially important.

In addition to the internal changes to the gut microbiome caused by pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period, the microbiome is also sensitive to a variety of external environmental conditions. For example, the sleep disturbances and deprivation common to new mothers may have significant impacts on the microbiome (5). Research suggests that individuals who experience chronic fatigue have lower microbiome diversity and increased incidence of dysbiosis, which can lead to increased inflammation and “leaky gut” (6).

How can you promote a healthy gut microbiome? One of the best ways to support your gut microbiome is through diet. Incorporating a variety of green and brightly colored vegetables, squashes and root vegetables, and high quality proteins and fats into your daily diet not only provide the necessary nutrients crucial for pregnancy and postpartum, but also provide the ideal fuel for beneficial gut bacteria. Processed foods and refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, both increase inflammation throughout the body, and feed harmful bacteria leading to dysbiosis and other negative health effects, and contributing to mood issues like depression. Adding fermented foods like sauerkraut or a high quality probiotic supplement can also support a healthy microbiome. Lastly, you can map the composition of your gut microbiome through stool testing which can show you overall bacterial diversity, specific strains of harmful bacteria, yeast overgrowths, and types of parasites that may be affecting your health and mood.

(1) Dinan, T.G. and J.F. Cryan. (2017). The Microbiome-Gut-Brain Axis in Health and Disease. Gastroenterology Clinics of North America 46(1): 77-89.

(2) Nuriel-Ohayon, M., Neuman, H., and O Koren. (2018). Microbial Changes during Pregnancy, Birth, and Infancy. Frontiers in Microbiology 7: 1031.

(3) Slykerman, R.F., et al. (2017). Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 in Pregnancy on Postpartum Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Randomized Double-blind Placebo-controlled Trial. EBioMedicine 24: 159-165.

(4) Boufidou, F., et al. (2009). CSF and Plasma Cytokines at Delivery and Postpartum Mood Disturbances. Journal of Affective Disorders 115: 287-292.

(5) Mutic, A.D., et al. (2017). The Postpartum Maternal and Newborn Microbiomes. MCN: The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing 42(6): 326-331.