When I think of hormones, I think about the hormonal jungle I had to navigate as I made my way through pregnancy, birthing, breastfeeding and weaning.
Looking back, what made these experiences all the more challenging was that they didn’t “look or feel” like anything I was told they would by the mainstream medical world.
Writing this now, as a mother of three, I can reflect on how my emotional and mental experiences played out very differently after each of my three births. Not one of them followed the “typical description” you find in the little pamphlets sent home with you from the hospital.
The truth is that sometimes very healthy, right-functioning breastfeeding experiences do not generate positive emotional states. In fact, hormone-induced depression sometimes surfaces as a direct result of weaning from breastfeeding.
But these experiences related to breastfeeding and weaning are rarely highlighted or exposed in messages around women’s health.
When you are breastfeeding, you begin to produce two significant hormones: prolactin and oxytocin. Oxytocin and prolactin are the hormones produced during breastfeeding that work together to make milk, establish a letdown, and keep up with the supply and demand of a nursing infant. They are also understood to help with the mother-child bonding experience and to produce a warm and typically content emotional state.
While many women experience a very positive mood-boosting experience with breastfeeding, as a result of the increased production of oxytocin, not all women respond to oxytocin in positive ways.
Some women have an increased stress response to increased levels of oxytocin (if your body is sensitive to high levels of oxytocin, the rise in oxytocin actually becomes counterproductive for your mood stability).
As a result, some women find that their time breastfeeding is marked with increased depression, anxiety and irritability – not at all the picture of warm, happy, uplifted feelings we tend to paint around breastfeeding.
If you take an already biophysically sensitive body and add high levels of oxytocin, then pair that with other stress-producing experiences like loss of sleep, painful breastfeeding, and overwhelm, it’s no wonder this can be a difficult time for some mothers. And what makes it all the more challenging is the idea that you are supposed to be experiencing things a different way.
In the classes and communities I lead, the healing power of normalizing a behavior or experience through shared connection is more powerful than many of us estimate.
As I worked with mothers all over the world, I increasingly began to hear of a “delayed” postpartum depression that some of them experienced. As we discussed it further, many began to make the connection between when they weaned off of breastfeeding, and this marked increase of emotional depression.
Remember, for some women, oxytocin does function as a conduit for uplifted mood and bonding, so their emotional wellbeing during breastfeeding was being bolstered by the rise in oxytocin. As breastfeeding ends, so does the regular hormonal production of prolactin and oxytocin.
When this drops, a woman again is susceptible to the mood impacts of her hormonal state bottoming out, until her body recovers a normal hormonal rhythm again.
For many of us, our journey into and through motherhood is full of heavy and layered emotional experiences. These experiences all have correlating physical and hormonal counterparts.
Retaining our vitality through these hormonal transitions requires a decision to unconditionally accept our experiences for what they are, and use them as guide posts to better understand what we, personally, need for healing and restoration.
Lisa Grace Byrne is founder of WellGrounded Life, an exceptional online community where she supports women worldwide to live vibrant, fulfilling and prosperous lives.
This story was written for Dr Sara Gotfield MD.com and is republished here with permission.
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