We nursed on the idyllic beaches of Malibu, sandy and serene; we nursed on the hot asphalt parking lot of Trader Joe’s, sweaty and angry; I pumped on the 405 freeway, on the couch, in the bed. It was tender bonding, it was never-ending physical exertion, and after eight and half months (don’t short me those last two weeks, thank you very much) and several spine-shivering experiences with four razor-sharp baby teeth, our breastfeeding journey came to an end. Making the decision to stop breastfeeding was hard enough—there’s the mom guilt; the unfulfilled expectations; the frustrated baby—but what I did not expect was that the process would send me into a hormonal tailspin flooded with tears, anxiety, fatigue and inexplicably greasy hair.
I probed my peers to find out: Does weaning from breastfeeding make one crazy? Is something wrong with me? The anecdotes flooded in. “When I was weaning it was the worst anxiety I’ve ever had.” “I felt horrible.” “I cried all day.” I marinated; were we all suffering through rock hard chests and cabbage leaves in silence? What was chemically happening here?
To make sense of the hormonal changes that happen with weaning, I spoke with Stephanie Cortner, founder of Root and Branch and licensed Acupuncturist, herbalist and Functional Medicine practitioner.
Can weaning from breastfeeding affect your hormones? How so?
“Yes! There are hormonal changes during pregnancy and postpartum, but what a lot of women don’t expect is the huge hormonal shift throughout the process of weaning. Throughout breastfeeding there is an abundance of two very important hormones, prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin is known as the hormone that tells the body to produce milk and keeps mom feeling calm and relaxed, but that's not its only role. Prolactin also produces a hormone called oxytocin; the hormone that you might know of as the ‘love hormone.’ Oxytocin is the reason why we feel so content and happy when we are breastfeeding. As we start to wean, prolactin levels drop, which stops the production of oxytocin as well,” Cortner explains. “From an Eastern Medicine point of view, postpartum and breastfeeding women are extremely blood deficient or as we say, liver blood and yin deficient, due to losing fluid while breastfeeding and blood during childbirth.” That doesn’t sound ideal.
How might these hormonal imbalances manifest in terms of symptoms?
“With prolactin and oxytocin levels lowering, progesterone and estrogen levels will begin to rise, which in turn sparks ovulation and our menstrual cycle to start up once again. We are not only managing the decrease in all the ‘feel good’ hormones but we are also dealing with the hormonal shifts that come with our menstrual cycles. If you had a difficult time with hormonal fluctuations before pregnancy, this might be a rather challenging time for you,” Cortner says.
“You might feel an array of symptoms ranging from sadness, anxiety, breast engorgement, weight gain, difficulty with concentration or ‘mom brain,’ dry mouth and guilt.” Well, ahem, that all sounds familiar.
“Please know that you are not alone and there are herbal formulas that can help with these shifts. The majority of symptoms should only last for a month or two and should fully subside after three months. If these manifestations go beyond that or feel unmanageable during the weaning, please reach out to your therapist or OB for further help.”
What can mothers do to support themselves proactively during this transition?
“Remember to wean slowly! Dropping one feeding a week, if possible, will make the symptoms less intense. This, of course, will also depend on your hormones and how your body responds to the weaning. Oxytocin is released through breastmilk but it is also released through cuddling. Even though your little one is spending less time on your breast, you can still take the same amount of time for cuddles, which will continue the release of oxytocin,” Cortner suggests.
“There are also herbal formulas to help dry up your milk if you are experiencing breast engorgement as well as soothing formulas for anxiety and frustration that can come along with the hormonal shifts. Supplements are also very helpful and supportive and can include a postnatal, like the Perelel Mom Multi Support Pack, fish oils, floradix, which is a veggie iron supplement, plenty of magnesium, a well rounded adaptogen blend, as well as nettle and dandelion teas which restore calcium and iron.”
“Eating plenty of fiber to feed your microbiome is also a big help. Please remember your pillars of health; sleep, meditation, whole foods and exercise. When our gut is healthy, we are healthy so use your food as medicine. A few examples of foods to boost your energy and build back your fluids after breastfeeding are seaweed, black beans, fish and black sesame seeds. These foods are nourishing to your essence, which we want to restore postpartum and post-breastfeeding.”
How long after weaning will it take for hormones to balance and your cycle to recalibrate, generally?
“Any changes to our body’s systems typically takes up to three months. This is the time for our hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) axis, which is the communication from brain to ovaries, to recalibrate. Acupuncture can greatly decrease the amount of time it takes your body to adjust and can also help with the transition in hormones as well as to help your body create endorphins naturally. If you still don’t feel like yourself after a few months, functional medicine lab tests are great at finding where the root of the imbalance lies so we can supplement your body with the right precursors and cofactors instead of simply chasing symptoms,” Cortner says.
Are anxiety and depression normal during this process?
“Unfortunately, anxiety and depression can definitely be a part of the weaning process. Identifying where the feelings are coming from is important. There is a lot of guilt that comes up when weaning, and there are therapists that are specifically trained in postpartum and post weaning blues. If it is purely hormonal, again, herbal formulas are really powerful. Sometimes we need a little extra and that is where the functional labs come in handy to see if specific neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin levels are low and then giving precursors to these neurotransmitters so we are telling our brains how to properly operate and fire again. Other times it can be as simple as taking a strong B complex vitamin a couple times a day on top of our prenatal. B vitamins are really important! These guys are cofactors in so many different systems in the body and when we are deficient in them, those systems, such as our mitochondria, or energy creators in our cells, don’t have the fuel they need to be powered correctly. The good news is that there are many supportive measures to ease the weaning transition and the most important thing is to be kind to yourself, listen to what your body is telling you and ask for help,” Cortner says.
Did you experience any hormonal shifts while weaning from breastfeeding? We love to hear your experiences. Tell us by joining our community on social or by subscribing to our newsletter. Plus, support yourself with Perelel Mom Multi Support Packs formulated for postpartum and beyond throughout motherhood.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Perelel.
Written by Jessica Lopez. Jessica Lopez is a freelance writer, digital content creator, and new mother. She has covered all lifestyle topics ranging from bridal to beauty for publications including Brides Magazine, Byrdie, THE/THIRTY, and more. Walking wide-eyed into motherhood has inspired her to connect with other parents through her writing and shared experience. You can follow more of her journey @Jessica.H.Lopez.