While pregnant, you dutifully loaded up on folate to reduce the risk of neural-tube defects in your newborn, but now research says there's just as much reason to keep supplementing with the nutrient even after the baby arrives.
A new study from Tufts University in Boston shows that folate may play a critical role in staving off postpartum depression. Researchers looked at folate concentrations in nearly 3,000 people and found that those with major depression had lower levels of folate in their bloodstream than those who had never been depressed. Longer-lasting, mild depression (dysthymia) was also associated with low folate levels.
"Folate plays an important role in brain function," explains Martha Morris, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. "Low levels of it result in symptoms that can mimic major depression -- including fatigue, difficulty learning, loss of energy, and changes in appetite -- so what looks like depression could actually be a folate deficiency."
Studies show that supplementation with 400 to 500 micrograms of folate a day improves these depressive symptoms and can even make antidepressants work better.
So if you're among the 70 to 80 percent of women who feel tired, irritable, and inadequate after childbirth (the baby blues), Morris recommends having a physician check your folate levels. And if you're interested in getting more folate in your diet as a potential mood booster, turn to whole-wheat breads, cereals, rice, and pastas. Thanks to a government mandate requiring folate fortification of all enriched grain products, Americans are already getting an additional 200 micrograms of folic acid daily. Other foods naturally rich in folate include spinach, asparagus, lentils, and beans. You can also continue to take your prenatal vitamins post-baby (many doctors recommend this anyway, especially if you're breastfeeding); that way, you can be sure you're getting the folate you need.