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Corrin Ainley
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Postnatal Depression: causes and prevention

by on 09 June, 2015

The link between nutrient deficiency, copper toxicity and post natal depression.

Postnatal depression (PND) is a major depressive disorder that generally occurs within 6 to 12 weeks of delivery, but can happen any time up to 1 year after birth. With around 15% of women experiencing this disorder it is important to understand the causes and use strategies for prevention.

Women with PND often experience reduced pleasure in almost all activities, difficulty in everyday functioning, insomnia, significant weight loss or weight gain, agitation, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness and excessive fault, reduced self-esteem and self-confidence, difficulty in concentration and even suicidal tendencies.

So, why do so many women become depressed or anxious after pregnancy?

Pregnancy and breastfeeding are major nutritional stressors on the body. A mother’s stores of vitamins and minerals are prioritised for the growth of every cells, tissues and organs of the new baby. This places new mothers at risk of severe nutritional deficiencies and possibly copper toxicity.

Two common deficiencies in PND are magnesium and zinc.

Zinc as a trace element in high concentration in the brain. Zinc is for foetal growth and development, and during pregnancy zinc requirements increase by 31% and this continues during breast-feeding. Zinc deficiency is common in several psychiatric disorders and lower zinc blood concentration has been found in women with postnatal depression.

Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It helps to maintain normal nerve and muscle function, supports a healthy immune system, helps regulate blood glucose levels and aid in the production of energy and protein.  Magnesium also influences the nervous system via its actions on the release and metabolism of neurotransmitters. Magnesium is an important mineral during pregnancy, it regulates body temperature, controls genetic information, and is important in maintaining nerve and muscle function. The high demand of magnesium required for labour contractions and extra stress hormones released during labour can exacerbate a deficiency. Various studies have focused on the antidepressant-like effects of magnesium and its deficiency has been reported in depression.

Are you copper toxic?

During pregnancy a mothers zinc levels fall as oestrogen and copper levels rise. This is a natural mechanism as copper is essential for normal growth and development of the foetus. Over the 9 months blood copper levels increase more than 100% and should return to normal quickly after birth.
Women with a history of PND have found to be significantly higher in copper. A new mother may already have elevated copper prior to pregnancy, zinc deficiency or a reduced capacity for copper excretion. Excess copper has a significant effects on mental health.

Symptoms of high copper include:

* Feelings of doom
* Fatigue and exhaustion
* Hypothyroid
* Brain fog
* Mood swings (often a very short temper)
* Headaches, migraines
* Depression
* Cold hands, and/or feet
* Super-sensitive, weepy
* Chocolate (and sometimes coffee) cravings
* Dry skin
* Feeling loss of control
* Adverse reaction to vitamins and minerals
* Constipation
* Panic attacks, high anxiety
* Aching muscles or muscle cramps
* Hypoglycaemia
* Extreme PMS (sometimes extreme thoughts pre-menstrually).  

Women concerned about copper toxicity can have their levels tests with comparison of hair tissue mineral analysis and plasma zinc/ serum copper ratios.  Increasing copper excretion can include supplementation of zinc, molybdenum, magnesium and vitamin C and should always be supervised by a healthcare professional.


  1. Increase high zinc foods - good sources are high quality animal protein, poultry, fish, organ meats, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, legumes, beans and nuts.
  2. Increase high magnesium foods - good sources are seeds, nuts, beans, dark green leafy vegetables and seafood. Eat foods rich in tryptophan - turkey, cottage cheese, eggs, lobster, mung beans, bananas, pineapple, spinach, asparagus, sunflower and flaxseed and oils.
  3. Increase foods high in B vitamins (especially folates found in dark leafy vegetables) - good sources are brewer's yeast, kale, spinach, Chinese greens, herbs, beans and wheat germ.
  4. Omega 3 essential fatty acids - oily fish, nuts, seeds, grass fed meats, eggs from chickens fed omega 3's and supplementation of omega 3 in pregnancy and breastfeeding.
  5. Avoid low fat diets - fats are needed to build a baby.  Low fat diets have been linked to depression. Good fats are in olive oil, organic butter, coconut oil, avocado and nuts.
  6. Take a good quality prenatal supplement.
  7. Don’t stress out. You don’t need to be perfect.  Enjoy food, enjoy moderate exercise and rest when needed. If you're concerned about diet see a nutritionist who will ensure you're getting all the nutrients you and you're baby need.



Bodnar L, Wisnar K, Nutrition and Depression: Implications for Improving Mental Health Among Childbearing-Aged Women, Biological Psychiatry, 2005 Nov1; 58(9): 679-685
Casper J, Copper Toxicity (self-evaluation), JW, Walsh WJ.
Elevated serum copper levels in women with a history of post-partum depression. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2007;21(1):17-21. Epub 2006 Dec 18.
Etebary S, Nikseresht S, Sadeghipour HR, Zarrindast MR. Postpartum Depression and Role of Serum Trace Elements. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry. 2010;5(2):40-46.
Pathak P, Kapil U. Role of trace elements zinc, copper and magnesium during pregnancy and its outcome. Indian J Pediatr. 2004 Nov;71(11):1003-5.
Scholl TO, Reilly TM, Trace element and mineral nutrition in human pregnancy.  In Bodgen JD, Klevay LM eds. Clinical Nutrition of the Essential Trace Elements and Minerals: The Guide for Health Professionals.  Totawa, NJ: Human Press Inc, 2000: 115-138
Wash WJ. Nutrient Power. 2012. Skyhorse Publishing.

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