Broccoli, Bell Pepper and Flax: A Nutritionist Explains Postpartum Hormone Changes & How to Regulate
Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can do to get those postpartum hormones back in beautiful balance.
Through my nutrition practice, I’ve come to understand that the hormone drop that occurs in the days immediately after birth is the most dramatic a human can experience.
I bet your healthcare provider didn’t tell you that, did they? Sure enough, many (if not most!) of the emotional, physical, and mental changes in the days, weeks, and months postpartum experienced by new mothers can be traced back to these hormone shifts. While much of this is just a natural part of the birth and recovery process for new moms and veterans alike, there’s a lot that we can do to ease the transition and soften the blow.
During pregnancy, hormones like progesterone and estrogen are at their peak, mostly produced by the placenta to support healthy development of the baby and prevent premature labor. After delivery of the baby and placenta, these hormones go from their ultimate highs to their lowest lows, essentially to menopause levels—with a lot of the same symptoms.
Here’s a breakdown of the hormones your body is sorting out through the postpartum period and what you need to get that hormone balance regulated to start feeling like yourself again.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common postpartum hormones imbalances, and what you can actually do.
What it does: High levels of progesterone are needed to maintain a nutritious uterine lining in the early days of pregnancy, and in late pregnancy, progesterone prevents us lactating too early and going into premature labor. Progesterone starts to take a dip early in the labor process, and it continues to fall after birth. If you are breastfeeding, the nursing hormone, prolactin, will also work to keep progesterone low.
What happens when it’s low: In the hormone world, we think of progesterone as calming, soothing, and involved in the maintenance of a healthy cycle, so some of the effects of low levels are related to these critical functions. Common symptoms can range from generally feeling anxious and having a hard time falling asleep to full-blown postpartum anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia or frequent mood swings. An imbalance can feel like an emotional roller coaster. Breastfeeding’s role in suppressing progesterone also works to prevent the return of the menstrual cycle (similar to birth control).
What you can do to balance it: To encourage the return of progesterone, focus on a well-balanced diet without limiting any food groups. Progesterone levels are particularly sensitive to a restrictive diet, and the postpartum period is not a time for cutting calories (or fat or carbs). These are the building blocks of healthy hormones and are also needed for energy and healing in this delicate time.
Vitamin C-rich foods or supplements can also significantly improve progesterone levels, so focusing on fruits like citrus and berries and vegetables like bell peppers and broccoli can boost your hormones as well.
What it does: Like progesterone, estrogen levels drop significantly after birth and are also suppressed if you’re nursing. Estrogen in pregnancy helps regulate the production and release of other hormones (such as your baby’s cortisol) and plays an important part in growth and development of your little one.
What happens when it’s low: In the postpartum period, low estrogen will cause hot flashes and night sweats, vaginal dryness, low libido, and dry skin. Low estrogen is also related to mood disorders, and so this swift drop in levels is one of the risk factors in the baby blues as well as postpartum depression and anxiety.
What you can do to balance it: One of the easiest ways to gently promote estrogen balance is flax—a tablespoon of ground flaxseed daily can significantly raise low estrogen levels, according to studies. Mixing flaxseed with oatmeal in the morning has the bonus effect of supporting healthy lactation. Other options to gently increase estrogen levels are fermented soy (like tempeh or miso) and organic, full-fat dairy.
What it does: Cortisol, AKA the “stress hormone,” is on the rise during postpartum. The combination of lack of sleep, a healing body, and all the stress that goes into caring for a baby while balancing relationships, work, and other demands of the family sets the stage for cortisol going through the roof. Cortisol is also tightly related to our other hormones, and a hormonal imbalance of high cortisol levels keep progesterone from performing at its peak.
What happens when the level is high: Signs of cortisol imbalance are less distinctive than estrogen and progesterone imbalances. Many women experience fatigue, feelings of burnout, difficulty winding down at night, decreased stress tolerance, foggy brain, and difficulty losing the baby weight (especially around the middle) are the most common. Essentially, most of the symptoms that are explained away as “just part of new motherhood” are caused or worsened by the stress hormone.
What you can do to balance it: As with progesterone, a well-rounded diet can promote proper cortisol function. Skipping meals or food groups can trigger a stress response, keeping cortisol high. Caffeine and alcohol also stimulate more cortisol production, so keeping these to a minimum can help with balance as well.
The best help for cortisol however, is sleep and stress reduction, which are so often the most hard-to-manage parts of new parenthood. This is an entire subject of its own, but some quick tips to ease the transition until sleep and stress improve are going to bed 30 minutes earlier, asking for help when needed (which is often!), and starting a mindful daily ritual like meditation or journaling.
While time is a critical piece of the hormone healing and balancing puzzle, what you do with that time can have the greatest healing. Take a step back, lower expectations for how much you can take on during the early postpartum months, and make sure to fuel and nourish yourself. This will make the difference between a long and exhausting road to feeling like yourself again after baby, or a quicker trip to a radiant motherhood.
Alison Boden, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and functional nutritionist specializing in women’s reproductive health from fertility through postpartum. She has a “food first” nourishing approach to wellness and healing and loves working with women on the transition from pregnancy to motherhood.