This isn’t really a post I wanted to write, but I think it’s an important one to write. We just don’t talk about postpartum recovery enough. (If you’re wondering, the picture above is me, in the morning, with no makeup and not yet showered. That’s the real postpartum life.)
After my last baby was born, I wrote about my experience with postpartum weight loss. A lot of women related to that. It’s a real struggle that women face, and it’s not one that’s driven by laziness or lack of discipline at all. It’s much more complex than that.
I had a lot of theories about postpartum recovery, especially weight loss, after that experience. Now, my fifth baby is 9 weeks old. I’ve learned even more about it all…and now I’m sharing it with you.
The Truth About Postpartum Recovery
This post will focus on the first few months, as that’s where I am right now. I have more ideas and theories about the later months, but we’ll have to see how they pan out when I get there.
When we’re talking recovery, we’re talking:
- Hormone balance
- Weight loss
- Physical healing
Many women experience struggles in these early months, including hair loss, weight gain, constipation, feeling cold, lack of energy, difficulty sleeping (and not just because of the baby), ongoing bleeding, acne, greasy hair, and more. Some of it’s annoying, some of it’s truly serious. And it matters because it can impact your fertility if you want more babies, your ability to produce milk for your baby, and your own health.
My Early Theories on Postpartum Recovery
In my last two pregnancies (babies 4 and 5), I did not gain any weight until the 20-week mark, or later. (20 weeks with #4, 22 weeks with #5.) After that I gained slowly and steadily, topping out at about the same weight regardless of starting weight. (3 of my 5 pregnancies I landed at 170; 1 was 160; 1 was 150. I am 5’3″.)
Hormones appear to play a big role in weight loss. In pregnancy, prolactin is suppressed and estrogen is very high. Progesterone is fairly high too. After birth, progesterone and estrogen levels drop rapidly, and prolactin levels rise — prolactin produces milk. It also suppresses progesterone, and, when levels are very high, encourages weight gain.
This makes sense — women need enough fat to make milk to sustain their babies. It’s why many women do not lose the baby weight until after weaning.
But, I think that too-high levels can be avoided or reversed with abundant nutrition and enough vitamins and minerals. I think that eating enough food and taking probiotics will lead to balanced levels, effective digestion, and slow yet steady weight loss. (Plus, more energy, better sleep, and better overall recovery.)
What the Science Says About Postpartum Recovery
High prolactin levels are associated with obesity and weight gain (source). High prolactin levels are somewhat normal during lactation (because they need to be, to produce milk and suppress fertility temporarily), but too much prolactin can cause problems.
When prolactin is too high, it may lead to weight gain and acne. This article explains how high prolactin can cause acne. Stress (linked to cortisol, another hormone) also makes prolactin higher and can make problems worse. These can also be related to thyroid disorders.
But! There is help.
Zinc seems to be related to this in an important way. Zinc is frequently depleted during pregnancy and nursing because it’s needed in large amounts for baby’s development. Zinc deficiency also leads to high prolactin levels (source) and can cause hair loss and poor appetite. So being low on zinc may very well play a major role in hormonal imbalance the related symptoms.
Zinc’s not easy to get from foods — the highest foods are oysters (by far), nuts, seeds, and some meat. Most people aren’t going to get enough, and that doesn’t even include the extra that is needed for breastfeeding. As far as supplements go, zinc picolinate is the best-absorbed form (source).
My Postpartum Recovery Experience and Plan
I noticed a definite hormonal shift at about 3 – 4 weeks postpartum. I noticed my skin and hair were more oily than they had been for months prior. The perioral dermatitis on my skin began to disappear (and was slowly replaced by acne, sigh). I gained a little weight, then stabilized again.
I noticed another hormonal shift around 8 weeks postpartum. This is when the acne got noticeably worse, for the first time in several months. My weight fluctuated up and down, depending on what I ate. When I ate early and enough, my weight began to go down. (Digestion was better and more consistent too.)
Often, I lack energy and appetite. Eating enough, consistently, helps both. Magnesium lotion helps both, too, and is especially important in sleep and appetite.
I believe that selenium also plays a role. It is important in thyroid function, detox, and immune dysfunction. Deficiency can cause infertility, hypothyroidism, and chronic inflammation (among other things). Personally, when I was eating quite a bit of shrimp — which is high in selenium — while I was on vacation several months ago, warts that I had had on my hands for several years healed completely in only a couple of weeks. Brazil nuts are another excellent source of selenium. (That’s important.)
After what I experienced last time, and what I see happening this time, I’ve put together a plan to reverse it all. It’ll take time, but I do believe it will help.
Check out this nutrient chart for pregnancy and breastfeeding for food ideas — it lists 10 key nutrients and 13 foods that are high in several of them. I’ll be focusing on them pretty heavily.
Each morning, I will eat within 30 minutes of getting up. I will also exercise lightly at least every other day. Breakfast will be balanced with whole grains (soaked or soured), fruit, and a protein, and it will be a lot. I will begin preparing my nettle and raspberry leaf infusion. I’ll be using grape juice for mixing the gelatin (diluted 1:1 with water) because grape juice is beneficial for the gut.
- 3 – 4 Brazil Nuts
- 6 desiccated liver pills
- 1 tablet zinc picolinate
- 2 tbsp. gelatin
- 3 probiotic capsules (85 billion CFU)
I will have a big lunch with a salad and garbanzo beans (high in selenium, zinc, copper, folate), plus soup or something else. Soup with homemade stock at least 3x a week (high in gelatin). Gelatin contains glycine, which, along with cysteine and glutamate, make glutathione (needed for immune function, muscle building, and a whole lot more — more on that tomorrow).
Evening meal + fruit, low on grains. At bedtime, I’ll be treating my skin with either my lavender and green clay mask + a couple drops of tea tree oil (2x a week) or my oil cleansing blend. I’m following that with acne salve, and I’m currently making a rose and comfrey serum to try instead.
- Baking soda/salt bath
- 1 tsp. magnesium lotion
- 1 tbsp. fermented cod liver oil
Throughout the Day
Lots of water, at least a quart of lightly-sweetened nettle-raspberry leaf infusion, light exercise and rest. It’s my goal to have balance in my activity so that I’m not constantly moving or constantly sitting all day (I tend to do one or the other).
It’s my hope that over the next few months, I’ll see things re-balance and my weight will slowly begin to go back down, and my acne will clear for good. And if it doesn’t, until my baby is ready for solids…then so be it. He’s 9 weeks now, and this phase of his life is so, so short. And hey, he’s already almost 13 lbs. and over 24″ long, so that’s something to be proud of — I’m growing a healthy baby.
I’ll update you all in a few months to let you know how it goes!
By the way, if you’re struggling with hormone balance, especially with menstrual cramps, you might be interested in my herbal formula, Ease the Ache. I offer it for sale on my sister business, Earthley. Plant-based remedies from the Earth. 🙂