A Hormone Rollercoaster: Navigating Postpartum Hormones

Hormones after birth

Do you feel like you’re on a postpartum hormonal roller coaster? Well, you’re right.  But fear not, we’re going to demystify what’s actually going on with your postpartum hormones.

Becoming a mom is one of the greatest joys in life for so many women. The transition from pregnancy into motherhood is accompanied by many physical, emotional, social, and hormonal changes. Understanding the various hormonal changes that occur, particularly those involving cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and oxytocin (as well as prolactin and thyroid hormones), may help new mothers navigate the postpartum period with greater awareness.

Cortisol Chaos: Managing Stress for Optimal Postpartum Hormone Balance

Cortisol, colloquially known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone, is produced in response to stress. Cortisol levels increase dramatically when labor starts, and increase continuously throughout labor and delivery. The increase in cortisol (and other hormones like “adrenaline,” and endorphins)  provide natural pain relief during this time. It also helps the baby’s organs mature in preparation for delivery. As the “fight-or-flight” hormone, a surge in cortisol also heightens arousal levels to ensure safety and survival for both the mother and her baby. In other words, your nervous system is in a more heightened state right after birth.

It’s kind of a Goldilocks thing…too much cortisol can cause problems

A heightened “fight-or-flight response” is biologically protective and normal immediately after birth. It makes sense that you would want to be more alert when you have a brand new neonate reliant on you for survival (primal biology at its finest). This can become an issue when a mother does not have the necessary support to take care of herself and her baby. If too many other stressors are at play like inadequate nutrition and sleep, financial constraints or work obligations, lack of aid in household chores, or management of other children, all of these put the nervous system on overdrive. This can lead to supraphysiological levels of cortisol, with the potential of your nervous system becoming stuck in a state of fight-or-flight. 

This is something you want to avoid, especially during the postpartum period. Nervous system changes can have long-term consequences on both physical and mental health (for both the mother and baby). Chronic stress affects the immune system and digestion, depletes nutrients and negatively affects the thyroid and adrenals (and downstream of your sex hormones). It also takes a toll on your mental health.

POSTPARTUM HORMONES

Here is what new moms can do to help balance cortisol after birth:

It is essential for mothers to prioritize self-care and stress reduction. 

  • Rest, recover, and sleep as much as possible. The 5-5-5 rule, 5 days in the bed, 5 days on the bed, and 5 days around the bed, can dramatically improve postpartum recovery and reduce stress. 
  • Keep your blood sugar balanced. Ensure you are eating enough food, and eating regularly to reduce blood sugar swings and spiking your cortisol. Have people bring you meals, or you can prepare and freeze meals ahead of time. Stock up on easy grab-n-go healthy snacks. 
  • Replenish nutrients. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods is essential for replenishing minerals after birth. Minerals like Magnesium, Sodium, and Potassium are depleted under stress, and further depletion causes additional stress (it’s a vicious cycle!).  
  • Do more of what makes you feel relaxed, happy, and calm. This could be breath work, “tapping” or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), sitting or walking outside, talking to your mother or a friend, listening to music, watching a comfort movie, a Magnesium foot soak or Magnesium lotion (yes, please!) – whatever your bliss, follow it! 
  • Get support! Get a postpartum doula if you can, or enlist help from friends or family that you trust (a doula, or a willing family member or friend can help with light housework, prepare meals, and help care for other children while mom focuses on bonding with the new baby, and recovering)
  • Un-busy yourself, set boundaries & say “no” to things, people, and places, that cause you undue mental/emotional stress. This is the time to focus on slowing down, so you can focus on nurturing and nourishing yourself in all capacities, as you nurture and nourish your new babe. 

Reducing stress as much as possible will help keep your cortisol more balanced so that you do not feel the increased effects of the other hormones that are also in flux.

The Estrogen and Progesterone Plunge!

During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone levels soar to heightened levels. In fact, you have up to six to ten times the amount of estrogen and progesterone than you would typically have when you’re not pregnant. As soon as the placenta is delivered, both the hormones plummet, and remain low until you start cycling again. This is a natural state of fluctuation and supports other biological purposes. The drop in both hormones facilitates the production of colostrum (baby’s first milk). However, this drastic shift from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, in a condensed timeframe, can leave new moms reeling, especially if they do not know what to expect. 

Sex hormones, “happy brain chemicals,” and the “baby blues”

You have the most sex hormone receptor sites in your brain. Both estrogen and progesterone affect neurotransmitters, or “happy brain chemicals,” like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. It’s understandable that new moms may feel the effects of these dramatically shifting hormones on their mood. Many of the emotional symptoms experienced during this time are referred to as “the baby blues.” 

Some symptoms of “the baby blues” may include:

  • Mood swings, or irritability
  • Feeling restless, or more anxious 
  • Sadness, being tearful or weepy

The baby blues typically resolve within 2-4 weeks postpartum. If intense feelings of sadness, or anxiety persist, it is best to seek support from  a knowledgeable practitioner who can help you explore potential deeper imbalances (such as nutrient deficiencies, thyroid hormone imbalances, or gastrointestinal problems) 

This natural state of hormone fluctuation is not something to fear, and does not automatically mean you will have a negative postpartum experience. If you are well supported and reducing excess stress, your body should be making other hormones to counteract the low amount of sex hormones and increased cortisol.

The Oxytocin Connection: Embracing the Postpartum Bonding Hormone.

Oxytocin is colloquially known as the “lovey-dovey” hormone.  It controls key aspects of the reproductive system, including inducing labor and lactation, and governs aspects of human caregiving and bonding behavior. If cortisol levels are managed appropriately, oxytocin flows to support lactation and baby bonding. So how can you get more of that warm, fuzzy “love,” and bonding hormone for yourself after birth? Do more “feel-good” activities! 

  • Touch. Skin-to-skin with baby, breastfeeding, cuddling, asking your partner for a massage, hugging, and kissing your partner. 
  • Socialize. Spend time talking to or visiting with beloved family members, friends, or the community. 
  • Meditation and yoga. Engage in activities that help you relax and connect to feelings of pleasure, gratitude, and love. 
  • Pet your animals
  • Nutrient-dense diet. Several nutrients like Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and Magnesium help support oxytocin production. 

Notable mention to Prolactin

Prolactin increases towards the end of pregnancy and surges after birth to support, you guessed it – milk production, or lactation. Prolactin can also suppress menstruation, which is why some women do not get their period while breastfeeding. There is some evidence that higher than-normal prolactin levels can have a negative impact on mood and contribute to symptoms of depression, irritability, and anxiety. This is thought to be due to prolactin’s relationship with dopamine, a ‘pleasure’ hormone. 

NAVIGATING POSTPARTUM HORMONES AND CHANGES

Thyroid Stress-test: Mastering Postpartum Thyroid Health

Last, but CERTAINLY not least, are thyroid hormones. Pregnancy is like the ultimate stress test on your body, and your thyroid (also known as the “master gland” of metabolism). The demand for your thyroid increases upwards by 50% during pregnancy, and thyroid hormones are absolutely essential for healthy fetal development. In other words, you want your thyroid to be functioning like a champ, before, during, and after pregnancy. 

Women are up to 8 times more likely to develop a thyroid condition than men, and 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with a thyroid condition in their lifetime. Due to changes to the immune system, and the potential for nutrient deficiencies and increased stress in the postpartum period, some new moms incur thyroid issues like hypothyroidism (or underproduction of thyroid hormones with the most common type being Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), or postpartum thyroiditis (involving  inflammation of the thyroid gland) that can ultimately cause hyperthyroidism (or overproduction of thyroid hormones) followed by hypothyroidism.

Issues with your thyroid can zap your energy and leave you feeling crummy

Some common symptoms of a thyroid imbalance include:

  • Unexplained weight issues (difficulty losing weight, or losing weight rapidly)
  • Fatigue
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Brain fog, or issues with memory
  • Muscle weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Dry skin and hair, or brittle nails
  • Excessive hair loss, or thinning hair 
  • Cold or heat intolerance 
  • Cold hands/feet and low body temperature

If you think you may be experiencing issues with your thyroid after birth, it’s important to seek guidance from a professional. You may also want to pursue additional thyroid assessments beyond the conventional ones for  TSH and T4. 

The good news? The thyroid is often just responding to its environment.

There is a lot that you can do to support your thyroid through nutrition and lifestyle. 

  • Eat ENOUGH food, and eat a nutrient-dense, diverse, whole-food diet. Specific nutrients that support thyroid function are Iodine, Vitamin A, Selenium, Zinc, and Iron. Other minerals such as Calcium, Sodium, and Potassium need to be in proper balance in order for thyroid hormones to get into the cell where they can be used. The thyroid also requires energy (from adequate food intake) in order to function. Postpartum is NOT the time to cut calories (in fact, you typically need MORE calories postpartum than you did while pregnant if you’re breastfeeding). Specific nutrition recommendations may be helpful under certain circumstances. Consult with your functional practitioner, registered dietician, or nutritionist to customize your nutrition to meet your needs. 
  • Reduce stress. Notice the common theme here. See above for how to reduce and manage those cortisol levels. 
  • Balanced movement. When you are cleared for activity by your provider, regular exercise (especially walking, and moderate resistance training 2-4 days a week) can also be very supportive for the thyroid. You want to avoid long, intense, cardio-heavy exercise sessions if your thyroid is in need of extra love. 

The bottom line

Your body is amazing and incredibly adaptive. You have so much more control over your health and hormones than you ought to believe. They are not a mystery that lies outside of your control. With some intention, the right support, and focus on the foundations of health building and self-care, you can have a positive impact on your postpartum experience. Give yourself grace, lots of compassion, and care as you adjust to life as a new mother. 

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