Postpartum Depression, Neurotransmitters, and Nutrition

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Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is a therapist, researcher and author with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Doctorate in Naturopathy. Dr. Fredricks works ...Read More

Like other forms of depression, postpartum depression (PPD) is often associated with a neurotransmitter imbalance. Many new mothers with PPD have low serotonin or norepinephrine levels in the brain that are aggravated by nutritional deficiencies. Scientists have found that proper nutrition is essential for the production of neurotransmitters.

As research examines the role of serotonin in regulating mood, low serotonin levels have been associated with virtually every type of depression. Serotonin and its group of neurotransmitters called catecholamines are chiefly made by the adrenal glands. They all work together to stabilize our moods. When the stress in our life increases, our adrenal glands make more catecholamines, which in turn causes our brains have less serotonin to maintain balance. As stressful events like pregnancy and childbirth occur, the brain can struggle to make enough serotonin to meet the new levels of catecholamines.


Another cause of PPD in new mothers results from low levels of norepinephrine. Attempting to increase serotonin levels with antidepressant drugs typically does not help this kind of depression. People with low norepinephrine levels express a lack of energy and motivation, as opposed to those with low serotonin levels who tend to have increased anxiety. The way low-norepinephrine PPD is diagnosed is typically through the trial and error of various drugs.

In addition to stress, there are other situations that make it harder for the brain to produce adequate serotonin. One of the most common is nutritional deficiencies and other dietary factors. In order to produce sufficient serotonin and other neurotransmitters, the brain needs a continual supply of nutrients, such as tryptophan and vitamin B6.

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The production of serotonin is a complex process that requires specific nutrients. In order to convert tryptophan into 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan (5-HTP), the body needs sufficient iron and vitamin B3 (niacin). Additionally, the body needs other B vitamins and magnesium to convert vitamin B6 to pyridoxyl-5-phosphate (P5P). If someone does not have enough 5-HTP and P5P, the brain will not produce sufficient serotonin, resulting in depression.

When the brain receives the correct levels of nutrients, it functions properly, reducing a woman’s chances of developing PPD or other forms of depression. Research has found a number of dietary changes that help alleviate depression. The Mediterranean diet is effective in combating the health problems associated with mood disorders. In addition to reducing depression in new mothers, the Mediterranean diet has been found to have health benefits for their children as well.

Other research has found an association between low fatty acids levels and the occurrence of PPD, indicating that pregnant women might be able to lower their risk of becoming depressed before and after giving childbirth by eating more fish. Some scientists have suggested that the relatively high incidence of PPD in the United States may be triggered by a low dietary intake of DHA. One study compared prevalence rates for PPD with the DHA content in mothers’ milk and seafood consumption rates in studies from 23 countries. The results indicated that lower prevalence rates of PPD were significantly associated with high concentrations of DHA in mothers’ milk and greater seafood consumption.

For new mothers who are nursing and do not want to take medication, nutrition and dietary changes may represent viable alternatives. In addition to therapy and other alternative therapies, nutrition counseling can be helpful in relieving depressive symptoms and improving overall well-being.


Hibbeln JR. Seafood consumption, the DHA content of mothers’ milk and prevalence rates of postpartum depression: A cross-national, ecological analysis. J Affect Disord 2002;69(1-3): 15-29.

Otto SJ, de Groot RH, Hornstra G. Increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms is associated with slower normalization after pregnancy of the functional docosahexaenoic acid status. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2003 Oct;69(4): 237-43.

Pawlosky RJ, Hibbeln JR, Lin,Y, Salem N Jr. n-3 Fatty acid metabolism in women. Br J Nutr 2003;90: 993-5.

Schildkraut JJ. The catecholamine hypothesis of affective disorders: A review of supporting evidence. Am J Psychiatry 1965;122: 509-22.

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