Postpartum Fatigue: How Chronic Stress Affects Your Body

Women in the postpartum period are particularly susceptible to adrenal fatigue.  Adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances and digestive problems usually caused by chronic stress.  Throughout the gestational period, the fetus produces a greater amount of adrenal hormones than the amount produced normally in the non-pregnant female.  For this reason, you may have felt amazing and energized during your pregnancy, and now that those extra adrenal hormones have been removed, you feel nothing short of drained and completely exhausted.  It is not easy being a mom!

Feelings of mental and physical fatigue in the weeks and months following delivery are completely normal.  However, when that fatigue impedes upon your ability to carry out simple activities of daily living and overall health and well-being, it may be time to consult your doctor.

Responding to Stress: the Role of the Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys, and produce cortisol – our stress hormone – which helps our body cope with mental, emotional, and physical stress.  When functioning well, our adrenal glands produce adequate amounts of this hormone, thereby allowing us to respond and cope with these stressors.  In times of prolonged or intense distress, the adrenal glands cannot adequately meet the demands of stress put on the body, and chronic over-production leads to a diminished output of hormones that maintain homeostasis (the ability of an organism to remain constant in the face of environmental changes ).

Cortisol helps the body respond to stress by:

  1. Increasing blood sugar levels to provide the body with energy.  However, over the long-term, this can lead to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and the inability to burn blood sugar through the use of insulin (glucose dysregulation).
  2. Reducing inflammation – though over-production as a result of chronic stress can lead to suppression of the immune system and an increased frequency of colds and flus.
  3. Increasing blood pressure.
  4. Activating the central nervous system into a state of arousal.

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is a combination of signs and symptoms that occur when the adrenal glands are not functioning at optimal levels.  These signs and symptoms may include:

  • FATIGUE, especially fatigue not relieved by sleep
  • General feeling of being rundown or unwell
  • Difficultly getting out of bed in the morning
  • Chronic stimulant use (including coffee, soda drinks, or drugs)
  • Frequent colds and flu as a result of decreased immune function
  • Cravings for salt and sweets
  • Feelings of dizziness or light-headedness, often associated with standing or a change in position
  • Low blood pressure
  • Anxiety, depression, or other mood disorder (baby blues)
  • Difficultly bouncing back from stress or illness

It may also be important to consider other conditions that may be present with similar signs and symptoms like: depression, low red blood cell count or low hemoglobin (anemia), low activity of the thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) , low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), or yeast infections (Candida infection).  Please speak to your primary care provider for more information.

How can I prevent Adrenal Fatigue?

As a new mom you will need all of the energy and stamina that you can get to feel your best! Here are a few tips for promoting optimal adrenal function:

  • Maintain a healthy diet that emphasizes whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Consume regular meals – eat soon after waking, and ensure that you are having snacks throughout the day.
  • Maintain adequate hydration.
  • Avoid excessive use of stimulants.
  • Stop smoking and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Exercise – at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily.
  • Get adequate sleep – sleep or rest when your baby sleeps, take the time to recuperate after labor and delivery.
  • Stress Management – whether you are returning to work or you are finding it difficult to manage your new lifestyle with a baby, it is important to establish coping skills that work for you.  Ask for help from family members when possible or get neighbours and friends to cook ready-to-eat meals as a baby gift.  Deep breathing and meditation can also be excellent coping strategies.
  • Implement a good supplement regime – there are various nutritional and herbal supplements that have been shown to be beneficial in helping to promote adrenal health: Vitamins (B and C), amino acids, and herbal adaptogens (licorice, rehmania, rhodiola, ashwaghanda).

It is important to consult your Naturopathic Doctor for assistance in creating an individualized plan for you. Please note that some of the interventions mentioned above may not be safe during breastfeeding.

How do I diagnose adrenal fatigue?

Not all medical professionals accept the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue, therefore it is important to find a health care provider that will validate your experience and work with you to meet your health goals. The diagnosis of adrenal fatigue may be supported by testing : dramatic decreases in blood pressure (orthostatic hypotension), pupil response (pupillary constriction), 4-point cortisol testing (to determine hormonal patterns over the course of the day), in addition to other blood tests.

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Kristi Prince
Dr. Kristi Prince, ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, who empowers her patients through health education, equipping them with the tools to make long-term sustainable changes. Kristi believes in supporting ‘healthy mothers for healthy families’ by providing holistic, individualized treatment plans. Dr. Kristi Prince is passionate about working with new mothers and women at all stages in life, in order to help them achieve their goals for optimal health and wellbeing.
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