The Effects of Stress (High Cortisol Level) On Breastfeeding Mom

Being able to manage your stress can certainly help you in so many ways, but did you know that it could help with your breastfeeding too? Read up to find out why! But before that, let’s go over some definitions.


What is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. It controls the amount of glucose (i.e. a type of sugar from carbohydrates) in your bloodstream. Insulin stores excess glucose in your liver, body cells, adipose tissue and muscles. This process helps to regulate blood sugar levels. Those who have diabetes do not have enough insulin or have impaired production of insulin in the body, thus unable to regulate blood sugar levels. It is important for the body to regulate sugar levels because constant excessive sugar levels in the bloodstream may lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic kidney disease.


How do insulin and cortisol levels correlate?

When you are stressed, cortisol levels in the blood increase. High cortisol levels suppress insulin function. This creates an insulin-resistant effect and encourages the body to produce more insulin to reduce blood sugar levels. Therefore, stress and unregulated blood sugar levels that are left unmanaged, could affect the health risk of diabetes in mothers later in life. In the short term, this may indirectly affect your breast milk production in terms of the supply volume and content.

One small study shows that Cortisol that makes it to your baby’s system through breast milk which is also known as ‘secondhand cortisol’, may affect the parts of their body that regulate emotions and thus, their behaviour. They have also found that babies who receive milk high in cortisol tend to become easily agitated in unfamiliar situations.

While increased cortisol may decrease milk supply, dips in breast milk are normal and temporary. If the rising cortisol level is among the main reasons for your low milk production, the best thing to do is to take control of your stress and not let it consume you. Start by identifying what are the sources of your stress at the moment.


Common Triggers of Stress for a Mother

First-time mothers may experience high levels of stress as they make a life-altering transition into motherhood. Some of the triggers for these emotions are the total lack of sleep, breastfeeding complications, and perhaps most challenging, the physical recovery and the appearance of body changes. All of these can make the transition difficult and stressful. Mothers might also be under a lot of guilt when they are unable to meet the huge needs of their baby.

Other common triggers of stress are a desire to spend time away from their baby, but is not able to due to inability to do so as she needs to be around to breastfeed or a fear that her baby will be harmed or starve. Examine your mental state and determine the triggers of stress and anxiety, and avoid them. Speak to your healthcare professional about your mental state because what you’re going through mentally also matters. 


Tips to Manage Stress

Sometimes, if we’re too stressed out, we’re unable to enjoy the experience of breastfeeding – of course, it does not help that stress comes with breastfeeding difficulties that arise because of it. It’s a truly upsetting cycle of feeling stressed due to low milk supply and not producing enough milk due to stress. Many mothers end up experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression during pregnancy, which can also affect breastfeeding. 

Here are some easy ways you can reduce stress and relax when nursing:


Do not be afraid to ask for help

Nowadays, there are doulas, lactation consultants, midwives and confinement nannies for you to contact easily whenever you are finding trouble with breastfeeding without judgements. They are people who are experts in breastfeeding and will be able to give you individualized solutions to your specific needs and challenges during breastfeeding. You do not have to feel alone. If you want to continue breastfeeding, there is help!


Exercise

As you exercise, you’ll be releasing endorphins which can help ease stress. Try to make a commitment to yourself and make the time to exercise every day so that you can also reduce your stress levels. Remember, it does not have to be draining you physically. Even walking counts as an exercise and is highly recommended by fitness instructors and medical experts alike. Something about exercise that just helps you feel like you are more in control of your body, your day and that you have done something for yourself that helps you feel instantly better and like you can conquer the day!


Get sufficient sleep

As impossible as it sounds, get as much sleep as possible in a night. Work it out with your partner or your family members who you could play tag team. Besides that, find out what can help you fall asleep faster and better, and avoid things that can make it harder for you to fall asleep such as caffeine or drinking too much fluids within 2 hours before bedtime.  You may think that taking alcohol is drowsy and may help you fall asleep, but it may disrupt your quality of sleep and may not feel well-rested. If taking long sleep throughout the night is very difficult to get, try to take naps during the day to reduce the effects of stress on the brain. 


Eat balanced meals every day

Apart from avoiding stress-inducing situations, your daily meals can play a huge role too! The key is to maintain a balanced diet! Have a little bit of everything – whole grains, meat, and vegetables! A good rule of thumb to follow is to follow the ‘Healthy Plate’ principle. This principle indicates that on your plate, you should:

  • Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with wholegrains
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with meat, fish, poultry or other protein-based foods
  • Use healthier oils

Another tip that you could try is to have a snack that is rich in tryptophan before bed. Tryptophan is one of the building blocks for melatonin which helps the body to sleep. Pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, dairy or yoghurt are good sources of tryptophan-rich snacks to have before bed. Definitely worth trying a small portion of these snacks if it’s going to help with sleep!

On top of these, maintain an active lifestyle and you’re pretty much good to go!


Write your to-do list down & set priorities

Between attending to your baby’s needs and juggling new responsibilities, things can get overwhelming very easily. When this happens, you can take a deep breath, remain calm, and make a to-do list of everything on your hands. Sort them according to priorities and how much time they will take to finish.

And that’s not the only list you can have! What helps you feel relaxed and calm? Write them down one by one and when you are feeling down, take out the list and see what you can do at that time. Listening to your favourite songs? Eating tasty snacks? Video calling your loved ones whom you haven’t talked to in a while? Put them all down on your list!

Whatever you do, keep in mind that emotions come and go so even if you feel stressed for longer than you want to be, tell yourself that it is okay and normal. Take as much time as you need to feel better. When you’re ready to take a step to feel better, at least you know where to begin!


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