By Dr Anita Star

The research tells us that mums nutrition during pregnancy will impact on the brain development and cognitive function of her growing baby. But what about mum’s mood? Can eating patterns or certain nutrients impact on perinatal and postnatal depression?

It short yes it can play a role, but it is quite complex. There is a lot going on in the body during pregnancy and post-partum. For example changing hormones, changing immune function, changing gut function, the beginnings of a much changed life post baby which can be emotionally challenging, throw in some difficulties sleeping, gradually increasing to what often amounts to severe sleep deprivation once the baby arrives, some nausea and vomiting, fear and trauma related to potential medical problems; and of course then there is increased nutrient needs for pregnancy and breastfeeding… and that’s just to name a few.  So there is often a pretty potent cocktail of factors behind the 1 in 7 Australian women who suffer from post-natal depression.

The research looking at diet and depression in health is relatively new, with many studies currently underway.  BUT Of the studies that have been completed, some research suggests an important role for diet in pregnancy in relation to postnatal depression; and other research shows no support for this relationship at all. Despite these mixed results in pregnancy; the research evidence of the role of nutrition in the prevention and treatment of depression in the general community, that is in people who are not pregnant or breastfeeding, is gradually mounting.  It is showing that diet can play a very important role in the prevention and treatment of depression (in conjunction with psychological treatment and medication).

So whilst the research for the role of diet in perinatal and postnatal depression is not 100% conclusive.  It is likely to be one important piece of a complex puzzle.  Also with so many things out of our control in pregnancy, diet is something tangible we can change for the better, so it makes sense to do all that we can to eat well for our mood and brain health. Here are my 7 top tips for improving mood, based on the research:

  1. Eat fish and other healthy fats regularly – Given that the brains nervous tissue is made up of 60% fat it is no surprise that healthy fats are important for optimal brain function and prevention of depression. Healthy fats are found in fish, nuts and nut oil, avocado, olive oil and canola oil. Omega 3 in fish are particularly important to brain function for you and the brain development of your baby. Learn more about fish in Pregnancy in our previous blog
  2. Eat lots of veggies and 2 serves of fruit daily. High intake of fruit and vegetables as part of balanced diet has been shown in a number studies to be associated with decreased risk of depression in the general community. There are many vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables which are important for most body functions. They are also high in antioxidants which help mop up damage to the body’s cells and fight inflammation, which is important for brain health. Finally they are great for healthy gut bacteria. For the best nutrition it is important to eat a wide variety of veggies (especially be sure to include lots of leafy greens high in folate) and a variety of fruits.
  3. Include wholegrains, lentils and legumes, sweet potato, whole fruit, milk and yoghurt- These foods are great sources of natural healthy low GI carbohydrates. They help keep blood sugar levels stable, supply energy to the brain, can help with improved and longer lasting energy, improved ability to concentrate and reduced mood swings. Many are also very high in fibre which together with fruits and veggies helps keeps our healthy gut bacteria happy. The research is starting to show a healthy gut microbiome also makes for a healthy mood.
  4. Eat foods containing Iron and Zinc regularly- These minerals are found in many protein foods especially red meat, fish, chicken, legumes and nuts. Zinc is a key structural component of many proteins and a co-factor for many enzymes (enzymes speed up chemical processes within the nerve cells) that play an important role in brain function. Low levels of zinc have been found in people suffering depression. Iron has an important role of transporting oxygen around you and your growing baby’s body in the red blood cells. As all the cells in you and your baby’s body need oxygen to operate and grow, the body increases blood volume during pregnancy and your iron need’s become very high. As well as negatively impacting on the baby, sufferers of iron deficiency will feel tired and run down, which can negatively impact on mood.
  5. Make sure you talk to your doctors about the right supplement for you. Sometimes it can be hard to meet all your nutrient needs in the pregnancy and breastfeeding period. Additional folate and iodine are recommended in supplement form for all pregnant women in Australia. It is also highly recommend you talk to you doctor about your individual requirements for Vitamin D and Iron, which are not routinely recommended in supplement form, but are common deficiencies that need to be addressed in the pregnancy and breastfeeding period. All of these nutrients can impact upon brain health and mood. Learn more about supplements in pregnancy here
  6. Drink plenty of water- Water is needed by every cell in the body. Due to growing a baby, and breastmilk production your fluid needs in pregnancy and breastfeeding are increased. Dehydration has been linked to decreased cognitive performance and mood, so don’t forget your fluids.
  7. Never Fad diet – Hopefully this is a given in Pregnancy, when you have to meet your own and your growing baby’s needs. But I often see women who are desperate to lose baby weight fast after their baby is born.  Diets that cut out whole food groups or many types of food, often mean you start to lack vitamins and minerals that your body really needs to recover from birth, and to breastfeed your baby. So fad dieting can be detrimental to breastfeeding success and you can stress your body out even more physically, when you may already be physically and emotionally stressed with post birth recovery, sleep deprivation, and the emotional adjustments of responding to a tiny human who is relying on you for everything. So don’t be in a rush to quickly lose weight with a fad diet after your baby is born, you will lose the weight in time, and you have so many much more important things to focus on right now. Take some of that focus and put it toward nourishing your body well. Eat regular wholesome meals and snacks and a wide variety of foods.

Want to learn more about nourishing you and your baby during Pregnancy & Breastfeeding?

Check out our new book.

Worried about you or a loved one’s mood or feeling depressed or anxious during or after Pregnancy? Please seek help and support

PANDA- Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia

National Helpline for Australians (Mon to Fri, 9am – 7.30pm AEST)

Ph: 1300 726 306

MumSpace is Australia’s new one-stop website supporting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of pregnant women, new mums and their families.

Lifeline Australia

Helpline 24 hours per day 7 days per week

Ph: 13 11 14

If you are feeling extreme emotional stress and need urgent support with a mental health crisis, then you have the option of calling lifeline at any time for advice and support.

Emergency Health Services

for any mental health or physical health emergency

in Australia Ph: 000

Beyond Blue

National Depression Inititative


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