When Healthy Food Wasn't Enough

I’m just going to say it: I have postpartum anxiety and depression. I have postpartum anxiety and depression and am currently on medication.

“This is strictly chemical,” my doctor told me. “You had a baby, your body is recovering. This is very normal.”

It scares me to put this online. I’ve shared extremely personal details of my life before but I feel incredibly vulnerable discussing my mental health. But I am.

Because I want this to be a place where women feel supported, uplifted and loved—no matter what our personal health journey looks like.

The other reason I’m sharing this is because of a quote on the recipes page of my site. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” I’ve lived by this for some time and strongly believe that our diet can have a tremendous effect on our daily health. As I've written countless times, when it comes to my body and my health, a plant-based diet of mostly whole, unprocessed foods is what makes me feel the healthiest, strongest and happiest.

But what about those times when food is not enough? The online health and wellness community is a beautiful, vibrant and inspiring space and I’ve been so proud to be a part of it for the past three years. I’ve learned so much and connected with so many amazing people. And most importantly, I’ve learned how I can take my health into my own hands.

But last summer when I got pregnant, I realized that I had put enormous pressure on myself to get everything my body needs from food. When I was twenty weeks pregnant, my legs started to hurt. A lot. My shins felt like they were being stabbed by a thousand needles and my calves ached. I shared this with a friend at prenatal yoga and she suggested I take calcium magnesium supplements.

Pills?! I had already quit taking my prenatal vitamins after my first trimester (with my midwife’s approval) because I was convinced I could get all of the nutrients I needed for myself and my growing baby from my healthy, plant-based diet. I had read it was possible, so the thought of needing extra help from supplements made me feel ashamed. Like I wasn’t eating healthy enough.

Was I not eating the right foods? Was I not eating enough foods? What was I doing wrong?

Despite feeling down, I went directly to a health store after my yoga class and purchased an algae-based, calcium magnesium supplement. Days after taking it, I noticed a huge difference and my leg pain went away.

From that point on, I did a lot of research on suitable supplements and vitamins to take while pregnant, and with my midwife’s approval started taking an iron supplement, an omega DHA-EPA supplement, vitamin D and my usual B12 vitamin. I felt amazing, full of energy and, months later, Ivy was born perfectly healthy.

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When Ivy was only a few weeks old, I started to feel different, off. I cried a lot. I felt anxious. I didn’t want to be around people, not even my family (aside from Ben and Ivy.) After her first growth spurt, when I nursed her every twenty minutes, around the clock, I collapsed from exhaustion, anxiety and sadness and had my first panic attack.

That night, I felt like dying would have been easier. I was terrified. I was paralyzed. I found strength to nurse Ivy when she needed it, but after that I would go back to bed and sob. Ben called our midwife at 5:00 am and told her that he was worried about me and that I needed help – serious help.

She came over and assessed me. I told her that I felt like I had postpartum depression. I said that I didn’t feel right, that I felt like I had lost myself entirely and that I needed help. She assured me that I was fine, that I did not have postpartum depression and that this was just an adjustment period to my new life. She told me I was doing an amazing job and to be patient with myself for things to smooth out. So that’s what I did.

I continued to feel anxious and nervous, but I thought this was normal for new mothers. On the outside, I looked completely cool and collected. I was exercising every day, flowing through a routine seamlessly, getting some freelance work done and falling more and more in love with my baby as the seconds went by.

I had good days and bad days. Sometimes I would sob and sob for hours and could hardly get off the floor. Other days I felt like the best version of myself. I meditated, ate extremely healthy, continued to exercise and did everything that I thought I needed to do to take care of myself. But it wasn’t enough. One night, lying in bed with Ben, doing my absolute best to not succumb to another panic attack, I whispered to him, “I feel like I’m suffering.”

The next day he took me to the doctor.

I’ve been on medication now for a few months and I feel incredible. I feel like myself. There are times when I have anxiety (as my doctor says, it is a normal human emotion, after all) but the difference is that I’m now able to work through it. I have control over these feelings in a way I did before giving birth.

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Postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety are SO common but it took me MONTHS to accept the right help, the help I needed, the help I couldn’t get from food.

To be honest, I never thought I would take medication. Not that I didn’t believe in it for others, but because I didn’t think I would ever need it. I held myself to such a high standard of health that what I expected of myself wasn’t even possible; it was superhuman. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to get sick, I wasn’t allowed to take medication.

According to the California Institute of Technology, 90% of serotonin is made in our gut, in the digestive tract. A healthy lifestyle and diet can play a part in one’s mental health but it’s not always enough. If you’re feeling like you have low energy, for instance, an adjustment to your diet or increased exercise may help you feel better. But, depending on the severity, it might not make any noticeable change at all. Sometimes, we need the kind of help that diet and lifestyle can’t provide.

If you’re a new mother and think you might have postpartum anxiety and/or depression, tell your health care provider. You don’t deserve to feel this way.

UPDATE: 
Since posting this article, I've received so many messages from mothers sharing their struggles with PPD/PPA and wondering if they should take medication, too. "I don't feel like hurting myself or my baby. Do I still need meds?" they say. I never felt like that, either.

I'm not in any place to tell someone if they need medication or not. I'm not a doctor (obviously). All I know is my experience.

What I will say is that the narrative around postpartum depression and anxiety is problematic. Why do we (as mothers) believe we only need help once we reach the EXTREME low point of wanting to hurt ourselves or our children? When I reached out for help (midwife, postpartum crisis lines), I was asked if I felt like hurting myself or my baby. When I said "No" I was told I was fine and probably just exhausted and overwhelmed with being a new mother. To them, I was for the most part ok, or going to be. But I didn't feel ok.

I was once told that my postpartum anxiety was a sign that I'm a good mother, because good mothers worry about their children. At the time, I took this as a compliment but it didn't sit right with me. Why should I be ridden with anxiety to be a good mother? I hated feeling the way I felt and did everything I could to feel better - healthy, plant-based food, daily exercise, meditation, gratitude journaling, working, walking, loving, laughing. All of these things helped but medication was the final piece of the puzzle. I feel incredible now. I care for Ivy in the same way, but now I feel calm. I feel peaceful, strong, healthy and happy. I feel like the best version of myself.

If you're feeling off, anxious, stressed, depressed or unlike yourself, if you know deep down that something isn't right, please speak to your healthcare provider. You deserve so much more.