03 May 2010

Can diet prevent baby blues?

Can certain foods or nutrients like minerals, vitamins and omega fatty acids help prevent or relieve the symptoms of postnatal depression? DietDoc investigates.


 It is tragic that just when women should be filled with joy after the birth of their children, many mothers develop postnatal depression or the "baby blues". Although researchers can’t yet say for sure what causes postnatal depression, some investigators have been trying to determine if certain foods or nutrients like minerals, vitamins and/or omega fatty acids can help to prevent or relieve the symptoms of postnatal depression.


The symptoms of this mysterious postpartum condition can range from feeling slightly down to severe depression. The symptoms usually occur 4 days after giving birth, but in some cases it can take up to 2 weeks for these negative feelings to develop.

One of the dangers of postnatal depression is that some women go on to develop full-blown depression for the rest of their lives which can have disastrous effects for themselves, their children and families (Derbyshire & Costarelli, 2010).

Postpartum blues are characterised by feelings of anxiety, sleeplessness, lack of appetite and irritability. On the other hand, postnatal depression has much more serious symptoms which include suicidal thoughts and actions, obsessive ideas and feeling extremely cantankerous.

Sadly postnatal depression can also harm the bonding process, so that mother and child do not form the essential connection that will stand them in good stead for years to come. This lack of bonding can in turn result in depressed growth and poor cognitive function in children born to mothers who suffer postnatal depression (Derbyshire & Costarelli, 2010).


According to reports, postnatal depression occurs in 13% to 20% of women who have given birth. South Africa has particularly negative statistics, with 24.5% of women experiencing depression after childbirth (Derbyshire & Costarelli, 2010).

Dietary Factors

Considering how many women are affected by postnatal depression and the potentially serious consequences of this little understood condition, some researchers have been investigating if nutrients such as vitamins, minerals or omega fatty acids can be used to counteract the postpartum blues.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Based on the findings published by members of the American Psychiatric Association, that omega-3 fatty acids may be useful in mood disorders, it has been suggested that taking omega-3 before and after childbirth could alleviate postnatal depression. DHA and EPA, the two most important omega-3 fatty acids, are thought to be involved with the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain (e.g. dopamine, monoamine and serotonin) and also facilitate transmission of nerve impulses.

Research has indicated that DHA levels were lower in women who became depressed after giving birth than in women who did not, and that supplementing omega-3 intake by eating at least two servings of fish a week or taking salmon oil capsules may alleviate postnatal depression (Derbyshire & Costarelli, 2010).

At present investigators have not been able to determine which dose of omega-3 provides the best protection against baby blues. It is known that the developing foetus has a high omega-3 requirement to ensure the healthy development of the eyes and nervous system (NutriScience, 2001), so it is possible that a mother’s DHA and EPA levels may be depleted during pregnancy if she does not eat fish or take omega-3 supplements, and that this depletion could trigger postpartum blues

B vitamins

Folic acid or folate, has also been implicated in the development of depression in the general population. So far a few studies have found that women with postnatal depression had lower blood folate levels, than women who did not develop the blues after birth.

Consequently it has been suggested that folic acid supplements, and riboflavin (vitamin B2) may help to prevent this condition (Derbyshire & Costarelli, 2010).


Calcium acts as an intracellular messenger and stimulates the release of the above mentioned neurotransmitters in the brain. Two human studies have shown that women who took calcium supplements (1000 to 2000 mg per day) were less likely to suffer from postnatal depression than the controls who took a placebo pill (Derbyshire & Costarelli, 2010).

Healthy Foods

Making sure that you eat the following foods during pregnancy and after childbirth, could just prevent those unwelcome baby blues:

  • Foods rich in omega-3 such as fish, especially oily fish like tuna, mackerel, sardines and salmon, omega-3 enriched foods (enriched eggs, bread and milk are available in some supermarkets), and flaxseed, canola or soya oils, which are rich sources of ALA, that is converted to DHA and EPA in the body (NutriScience, 2001) 
  • Foods rich in folic acid like green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, fortified breakfast cereals, maize meal and bread 
  • Foods rich in vitamin B2 including milk and dairy products, wholegrains, fortified breakfast cereals, maize meal and bread
  • Foods rich in calcium, especially milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese and other cheeses - have at least 3 or more servings a day. Use low-fat milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese if you have to watch your weight gain.

If you are not eating a balanced diet that contains the above mentioned nutrients then it may be prudent to take supplements such as salmon or flaxseed oil capsules (to boost omega-3), and MenaCal.7 (which provides calcium, folic acid and vitamin D), or vitamin B complex tablets that contain all the B vitamins without vitamin A.

It is recommended that pregnant women should not take high doses of vitamin A via supplements because this vitamin when taken in excess could harm the baby (Food Standards Agency, 2010).

Hopefully additional research studies will soon clarify what doses of omega-3, B vitamins and calcium and other minerals can prevent or alleviate postnatal depression, so that as many women as possible can experience childbirth as a positive and joyful event.  

 - (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, May 2010)


(Derbyshire E, Costarelli V (2010). Dietary factors in the aetiology of postnatal depression. Nutrition Bulletin, Vol 33, No 3, 162-168; Food Standards Agency (2010) Pregnancy. ( NutriScience (2001). Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and health benefits. Prepared by G Hornstra. Published by NutriScience.)

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Read more:

Beyond the baby blues

Happy event? When motherhood hurts


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