I decided to take on this topic today for several reasons. One reason is that I am currently working with many women who are in the postpartum period, and I’m sure there are many more out there that will read this post – both now and in the future. Another reason is that changes in hormones are often brushed aside like some kind of “excuse” in the minds of your typical average Joe. But the postpartum period is a powerful reminder that the hormones are in charge of us, not the other way around. We need more than a good “pep talk” to overcome the power of hormonal influences upon our bodies and brains. Lastly, one postpartum mom I have been speaking with has lost 35 pounds in 12 weeks eating as much as she wants of whatever she wants with no exercise. This too is an interesting biology lesson for everyone, and another blow to the theory that calorie intake and exercise levels are the prime determinants of a person’s level of body fat, or the idea that we don’t possess mechanisms to lose body fat without exercise or dietary restriction.
Important lessons from the postpartum period…
Prolactin levels rise to much higher levels than normal during and after pregnancy. Prolactin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. Generally-speaking, the more activity going on in the pituitary, the higher the level of stress. Interestingly, in a non-lactating female, high prolactin levels are seen with hypothyroidism. It’s possible for both males and females to start producing milk when prolactin levels are high. Prolactin, as in “pro-lactation” is the primary hormone responsible for milk production in the postpartum period.
What’s interesting though is that prolactin is actually higher during pregnancy than during the postpartum period. Part of the reason that the effects of prolactin don’t set in until after delivery is that progesterone is also really high during pregnancy (as in pro-gestation hormone). Progesterone counteracts the effects of prolactin. Progesterone drops after the kid is born, and then the effects of prolactin become much more apparent.
Postpartum Lesson #1 – Hormones are not isolated substances. They have complex interactions and interrelationships with one another. Looking at any one hormone level in isolation tells you next to nothing without seeing the picture of how all of the hormones are interacting.
What are the effects of prolactin? Its most notable biological effects are to obliterate the urge to have sex (males with high prolactin actually experience impotence typically), oppose and interfere with dopamine (the primary chemical of feeling happy and outgoing – often mistakenly thought to be serotonin), and disrupt the menstrual cycle.
Postpartum Lesson #2 – Prolactin is elevated postpartum. Prolactin lowers sex drive and worsens mood and energy levels in addition to being generally anti-metabolic. It also triggers lactation and is a necessary evil in a sense, which leads us to lesson 3.
Postpartum Lesson #3 – During the postpartum period, women are NOT at their physiological peak, but are in a suboptimal, compromised state of physical and psychological well-being.
It’s also well-known that if women are nursing frequently throughout the day and night as is historically normal for human breastfeeding (prior to the industrial revolution), that menstruation is blunted – often for well over a year if breastfeeding is continued. Breastfeeding is a natural form of birth control, preventing pregnancies from being spaced too close together. It’s been stated actually that it is biologically normal for women to only have a dozen or two periods in their lifetime (the tradeoff being merely 8 or so pregnancies and 16 years of breastfeeding). Get ready for the launch of my new Ancestral baby-making mimicry program entitled Paleo Pussy: Ain’t Got Time to Bleed with a foreward by Jesse Ventura. Ahem, excuse me.
What gets me is that everyone easily grasps the idea that a hormone like prolactin could stop a woman from menstruating, or trigger her to lactate. That seems simple and straightforward and there’s no conscious involvement with the regulation of such things. Yet, if you are “not in the mood,” depressed, or have a lot of extra body fat stored up then saying it has something to do with hormones is “just an excuse.” Keep that chin up and do more chin-ups! And then, when you start to get fit and sexy you just won’t be able to stay away from the bedroom! Whatever. As a male, just think of the strength of your desire for sex immediately after sex. Not so high is it? How are your energy levels? Feel like a workout? Guess what hormone peaks right after sex in males? Prolactin maybe? You betcha! Of course females have much higher levels of prolactin during the postpartum period, and it’s constant.
Postpartum Lesson #4 – When your body is in a compromised state, that doesn’t mean you should try harder to lose weight via self-starvation and exercise. Most people shouldn’t do that anyway, but you especially shouldn’t do it in the postpartum state.
What’s interesting is that there is a strong biological drive to return to your normal weight, and despite this highly compromised state, low energy levels, slightly suppressed metabolism… you still typically see weight loss during the postpartum period. Interestingly, one person I have been speaking with over the last year gave birth 12 weeks ago and has since lost 35 pounds. That in and of itself is fascinating, as that is an incredibly high rate of weight loss, and even after all that weight loss she is still breaking out in sweats anytime the thermostat is set higher than 67 degrees F.
More interesting still is the fact that her weight loss stalled out on her a couple times, where she stopped losing weight for a week or so. Those incidences came when she cut back her food intake and tried to exercise. As soon as she just went back to lazing around the house, spending the entire day in and out of sleep, and plowing through exactly the amount of food that she desired to eat, the weight loss resumed.
Postpartum Lesson #5 – Our bodies do have a mechanism that triggers spontaneous weight loss, with or without performing physical activity, and without consciously restricting food intake. Skipping meals, starving yourself, cutting out certain macronutrients, trying to will yourself to go jogging instead of taking a nap – these stresses can actually shut this natural process down, or at the very least awaken a strong drive to store fat in the future.
Many women won’t lose an ounce while nursing, and I try to encourage women to take it easy on themselves during this period. When progesterone picks up and prolactin falls once a woman stops nursing, you often see the same type of weight loss I just described – fast, automatic, completely free of effort. No need to try to squeeze in workouts between milkings or do a juice fast.
Anyway, just wanted to share some insights and experiences that tell a fascinating tale about how our bodies work, and the distinct differences in who we are and how we function in one phase of life vs. another. Plus, I love talking about milky boobies because I’ve never had it straight from the source. A disturbance in the universe will continue to exist until I do.