by Allan Folz
My wife had moderately severe postpartum depression (PPD) after the birth of our first child, a boy, in 2004. The depression lifted at the same time the nursing stopped, when he was about two years old. The pregnancy itself was without major or even minor problems so the depression was a big surprise. It was frustrating because nothing we did to alleviate it actually helped.
With our second child, born in 2007, for the whole pregnancy we were worried she would experience it again. Thankfully she did not. There were a couple of differences between the two pregnancies. Our first baby was a boy and born with a complication during delivery. The placenta did not release. This caused to be transferred to a hospital, as it was a home birth. At the hospital she was given two units of whole blood. Our second baby was a girl, also born at home, and this time with no issues.
Her third pregnancy was in 2010 and this is where the story begins.
A couple months before she became pregnant, I had discovered paleo dieting following a link to Richard Nikoley’s blog. I read about his experience and followed links to other sites in the paleosphere. The diet, the rationale behind it, and the numerous reports of other people having their health remarkably improved by it really resonated with me, so we adopted a lower-carb, paleo-style diet.
We didn’t have health problems that we were trying to correct for ourselves or a particular need to lose weight, outside of a few pounds for my wife relative to how much she weighed prior to her first pregnancy some six years before. However, I’ve always had an interest in health, medicine, and how the body functions. I even considered becoming an M.D. back in my undergrad days and minored in biology alongside my major in electrical engineering. I have a strong skepticism towards experts and what is the conventional wisdom in mainstream media sources. I think that’s why I almost immediately found Seth’s blog so intriguing, he questions the conventional wisdom and pushes people to take personal responsibility over their health and well-being. So, we were on a low to moderate carb diet, but weren’t fanatical about it. I remember that after my wife’s first visit with her midwives they were concerned by the ketones in her urine and strongly suggested she start eating more complex carbs. She followed their advice to be conservative. We were also supplementing Vitamin D and a little fish oil (a Mega-EPA omega-3 supplement). She was averaging 5K IU of Vitamin D a day, but only about one, 1 gram capsule once or twice a week of the fish oil. All in all, not much fish oil as I wasn’t sure how much was really necessary for people otherwise eating traditionally healthy, home-cooked meals, and I’m very skeptical of the diet supplement industry.
Late in the third trimester she started experiencing some moodiness. By itself, it probably would not have seemed atypical for a woman in her third trimester, but with my wife’s history we were far more sensitive to it and quick to take notice. Paying close attention (and long before discovering Seth’s blogging on self-experimentation), I eventually realized the moodiness happened when we’d skipped taking fish oils mid-week. If she didn’t take any mid-week, by Saturday it was very noticeable that her mood was on the short-tempered side. Once I noticed the connection, and without telling her what I was doing (i.e. single-blind), I’d deliberately skip the mid-week dose one week and note her weekend temper and mood. The following week I’d be sure she took a capsule mid-week. Next week back to skipping. Then, just to be sure, I had her double-dose one week. The double-dose had her in the best mood of all.
At first I was amazed. It was so neat, so mechanical — like flipping a switch. But it occurred to me that if two capsules in a week vs. one was enough to noticeably change her mood then she was obviously deficient as every mg was being put to use with no spare capacity in her system. I wondered if her body was scavenging omega-3 from her own brain for the developing fetus. That was a sobering thought. After that she went to supplementing daily and had no mood issues throughout the rest of the pregnancy or while breast feeding. She did have some of the typical “baby blues” that set in at the three day mark, but they did not last long. Also, she had good days and bad days, like anyone would. I’d say the omega-3 returned her to her normal bearing, irrespective of the demands of pregnancy and nursing.
There is zero doubt in my mind that omega 3 helped both my wife deal with a severe and yet all too stereotypical mental health problem. I’m a pretty sharp, pretty well-read guy who’s always had an interest in biology and medicine. After the experience with our son’s weaning, I wondered if nursing could cause or complicate PPD.
Seven years ago, when my wife was pregnant for the second time, I had searched the web for material related to those two (nursing and PPD) and came up empty-handed. I know I’ve never read something dealing with those two in mainstream outlets because it’s the type of thing I would mentally file away for future reference if the situation ever came up. It seemed like I was the only one willing to consider there might be a connection between them. Diet suggestions for nursing mothers are full of the usual bromides about getting enough complex carbs, fiber, and protein. Search engine auto-completes on “postpartum depression” don’t offer “omega-3” or “diet” anywhere in the top 10. You have to type the first two letters of each before they pop-up as auto-complete options. Today, the first hit for “postpartum depression diet” (I use Bing) is http://www.postpartum-living.com/depression-diet.html, which makes absolutely no mention of fats or lipids. It mentions vitamins, of course, but, incredibly, nothing specific.
During the two years my wife had PPD after her first pregnancy, no one suggested omega-3. At the time, I attributed her PPD to the delivery complications and the blood transfusion. I knew that depression is well-known among heart-attack survivors and IVF recipients, and, in my opinion, IVF is a pretty severe complication. Among the health professionals she saw about her PPD, the only thing the MD did was give her a prescription for Prozac or something similar, which she didn’t use because, well, of course — she was nursing. Had she quit nursing to take the prescription we would have attributed the improvement to the drug when it actually came from ceasing nursing. The naturopathic practitioners — she saw two different ones — gave her B-12 shots, SAM-e, melatonin, and a bunch of useless diet advice that one could read at all the usual places. The B-12 was good for a 24-48 hour energy boost. Other than that, none of them made the slightest difference.
Part 2, about using omega-3 to treat ADHD, will appear tomorrow. Allan Folz is a software developer in Portland, Oregon. He recently co-founded Edison Gauss Publishing, a software house that makes academically rigorous educational apps for children in grades K-8. Their apps are suitable both classroom and home use, and have proven to be particularly popular among homeschoolers that appreciate a traditional approach to practicing math.