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What Is Postnatal Depletion?

Having a baby is one of the greatest joys a woman can experience. Making a new life is miraculous, life changing, and monumental. Seeing your baby’s face for the first time is a wonderfully loving moment like no other. Yet this magical life change can also create a perfect storm to destabilise a woman’s psyche...

I’ve seen so many women go from highly functioning, world-travelling, happily ambitious, contented, emotionally centred, and utterly competent and organised professionals to zombie-like diaper- changing milking machines practically overnight. As you know, the physical act of nurturing a baby inside your body requires a huge amount of resources. Your body is designed to give that baby everything he or she needs to make it to term— often at your expense. And then, when it’s time for the baby to be born, the physical act of delivery also takes its toll— that’s why it’s called labour! If you’re breastfeeding, the process might be satisfying, especially as you know your baby is getting proper nourishment, but it is also taxing due to the caloric and specific nutrient demands put on your body that making breast milk entails. Add into the mix ongoing sleep deprivation, the preset expectation of self- sufficiency that society has conditioned you to believe (think “I can do it all” and “My baby will never cry”), unending and repetitive chores, a body that feels forever changed, an often- hurried diet, and a total change of life direction. Postnatal depletion is a constellation of symptoms affecting all spheres of a mother’s life after she gives birth. These symptoms arise from physiological issues, hormonal changes, and interruption of the circadian day/night rhythm of her sleep cycle, layered with psychological, mental, and emotional components. Think of your body as a plastic bag full of water. The more water in the bag, the better you feel and the better you are able to cope. Each day of pregnancy, the birth, each sleepless night, each long day of breastfeeding, is like putting tiny pinpricks in the plastic bag. You can repair these holes, but it takes a little time. When there are only a few sticks of the pin, only a very small amount of water escapes the bag. The trouble, though, is when the holes start to come more quickly than you can repair them. Such is the body after childbirth; when there are too many stressors and not enough time to recover, your levels become depleted. Depending on the severity of depletion, the postnatal period can last for years after the baby is born— you can be left with a bag so filled with holes that it takes a long time to repair and refill. In the worst- case scenarios, I’ve even seen the depletion pattern occurring decades later. None of this suffering should continue for so long! At its core, postnatal depletion is the understandable outcome of a series of less- than- ideal events leading to depletion of a woman’s well-being at multiple levels. There are three primary factors at play here:

  1. The nutrients given over to making, incubating, and birthing the baby are enormous, and this depletion continues after the birth for women who are breastfeeding.
  2. Bone-gnawing exhaustion can occur from sleep deprivation— the result of never having a good, refreshing night’s sleep.
  3. The drastic change of a new mother’s role is often accompanied by social isolation, which can have a deleterious effect on a woman’s psychological well- being.

Postnatal Depletion Is a Syndrome

In my many years of studying postnatal depletion, I’ve found incredibly few texts written about it. It’s important to understand why because in order to get the best treatment, you’re going to have to think outside the box, as I have learned to do. I view postnatal depletion as a spectrum on a scale from mild and moderate to severe. I view postpartum depression as a separate condition, but with a strong overlap of symptoms and issues with postnatal depletion. There are two important points that differentiate them. Postpartum depression is marked by true clinical depression that is pervasive, and it is also marked by “anhedonia”, which is a state in which a person takes no pleasure or joy from a situation or experience that in the past would have given them pleasure or joy. (Having a much-wanted baby is obviously that kind of situation.) Postpartum depression can be dangerous and must be treated by trained and competent mental- health professionals. With postnatal depletion, I realised I needed to push past my medical school training and find a better system than the linear- thinking model, because my patients were suffering and my conventional treatments weren’t working. The linear- thinking model, on which conventional modern medicine is based, posits that cause A leads to effect B. In this model, effect B can be caused only by cause A. There is no other explanation. I’m sure you’ve dealt with this situation if you’ve ever gone to a doctor with certain symptoms, only to have them dismissed because they weren’t “typical”. Try thinking of a room as a set of symptoms and signs that someone may typically experience a disorder or a condition. When there is only one door into that room (such as cause A leading to effect B; for example, you have hypertension or high blood pressure, leading to damage in your arteries related to plaque buildup and a subsequent higher risk of strokes and heart attacks), that room is called a disease. Modern medicine does an excellent job of dealing with diseases. A syndrome, however, is a set of commonly experienced symptoms usually caused by many different factors— this would be as if the room had many doors into it, and it was not immediately clear which door led you into the room or set of symptoms. Western medical doctors tend not to like syndromes because the linear- thinking model is too simplistic for effective treatment. But that’s what postnatal depletion is. Postnatal depletion also involves many minerals, vitamin, and nutrient insufficiencies; a disease process typically deals with a deficiency. It’s important to understand the difference between these two words. Insufficiency is where the level of a mineral, vitamin, or nutrient is not in the disease- producing range, but in the suboptimal range. In other words, an insufficiency won’t give you a disease, but it means that your cells and organs are not able to run properly. This, in turn, can make you feel terrible.