Perimenopause, gut health, postpartum recovery and their connection with Dr Tara Morrison
In this interview, Laurie and Dr. Tara Morrison discuss Perimenopause, gut health, postpartum recover and their connection, as well as how to relax your vagus nerve and birth trauma.
Tara is an integrative physical therapist, wormns health coach, founder of The Resilient Mother Method and is pssionate about helping moms heal in body, mind, and apirit after birth.
This is a transcription of an Instagram live conversation. You can find the full video on Laurie’s IGTV tab on Instagram and on soon on YouTube.
Today I’m bringing on Dr. Tara Morrison. We’re going to be talking about gut health, perimenopause and how both of those are connected to postpartum recovery.
It’s going to be interesting, because I did not know that there was this specific connection with recovery postpartum and what that means for your hormones later on in life. This is going to be a really cool, interesting talk.
I’m just going to let you introduce yourself. I would also love to know how you got into the work that you’re doing.
So I am Tara Morrison. I am a doctor of physical therapy and a women’s health coach, as well as a whole host of other other things that I have done in my life and career.
I got into working with women in early motherhood, partially through my own journey, but I’ve always had a passion for working with women and women’s health.
In my physical therapy career, I worked with a lot of women with chronic pain. Really the first nine years of my career was really focused on the role that stress has in chronic pain. Most of these women were mothers who were entering into perimenopause and menopause and having chronic pain in their bodies. We started recognizing that what really was going on is that they didn’t actually recover from birth well.
Their body was still weak and they were carrying stress. It was kind of an accumulation of things that had got them to where they were at. We were really having to upheave a lot of their life in order to get them on the path towards healing.
Then I became a mother myself and felt the immense changes of this Rite of passage that is motherhood and everything that comes with that. I took that information with everything I’ve learned about working with the body and a holistic manner and integrated everything together to now work with women in that postpartum phase.
So hopefully we can build better support structures, habits and heal the body, mind and spirit in order to hopefully prevent some of the challenges that can happen later in life.
Fascinating. I’m not a mom, but I just thought it was interesting that you had made this connection about that period of time. If the recovery wasn’t there or they didn’t get the support they needed at that time, that would show up later on in life in a different way.
A lot of it stemmed first from looking at their physical body. If they had symptoms of prolapse, pelvic pain, urinary leakage or maybe they still had a diastasis that had never been treated.
They’re in their forties, fifties and maybe even sixties and managed. Say if they had a prolapse, maybe they had had surgery for that. Someone may have told them to not do certain activities, but they never really had any sort of physical therapy postpartum, because that’s not standard care. That being one part of it.
As women, we tend to carry a lot of stress in general. So there are some women that are able to get back to feeling well without much help or intervention. But I think that’s not as common as the other scenario where there’s some sort of either physical, mental or emotional struggle or shift that a woman has to go through in order to really thrive and completely heal from that.
It’s a big toll on the body, not only giving birth and going through that postpartum period, but being pregnant and carrying a child is hard on your system too. Your baby really depletes a lot of your nutrients and energy stores. That’s why it’s really important to replenish that in the postpartum period.
There’s so much of this drive to get your body back, which is just really negative. Your body is now changed and women are trying to diet and trying to lose weight. They’re really hard on themselves when they don’t just lose the weight after the baby.
There’s a lot of negative bias and a lot of negative stories and pressures that women have around getting back, around being the perfect mother and around worrying what society is going to think of them, if they aren’t showing up perfectly posed on Instagram. There’s a lot of women’s suffering in silence and feeling really isolated in their struggles when it’s actually more common than not.
I noticed this too, with the moms that I work with. You’ve been struggling with some of the symptoms, because that recovery did not go so well. So you’re struggling with that, maybe that also creates more stress for you as well. If you have issues with incontinence or whatever else might be going on, that’s still left over.
We also know that there’s a relationship with the hormones, but adding those extra layers of stress, by not having a good postpartum recovery, builds up and creates hormone issues.
Our stress really is the driver of our hormone health. If we look at why our hormones are out of balance, we have to go back and look at the stress system, because that is what drives our hormone balance.
We look at things that cause stress. We know that trauma can cause stress. A lot of women experience birth trauma and it doesn’t fully get resolved. They might not talk about it. They might not know that there’s support out there. They might not understand how that birth trauma is showing up in their mothering or in their relationships. They might just think that they’re anxious or that they’re depressed, while it might actually be this unresolved experience that they had during their birth.
The interesting thing about birth is that it kind of opens you up for all of your past experiences. Going through labor and having a child, that immense experience can really make you a channel into opening up past experiences. It can be a trigger for past traumas.
It can also open you up to intergenerational family lineage kind of things coming through you as you become more energetically open. So it’s a time that makes you more vulnerable to things that you didn’t even think were an issue anymore.
I’ve seen this in my clients firsthand. Their experiences during birth can bring them back to a past sensation of trauma. But many don’t really link the two together, even though it might be manifesting itself maybe as pain postpartum.
So now we’re in peri-menopause or even in menopause and we’re having hormone issues. Where’s that coming from? Is it coming from just the stress of our lives or maybe is really layered from our past?
I think that’s fascinating and I love trying to help people tie some of those links together. Working with therapists and other providers in a collaborative way to help clients kind of work through some of that.
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That really just brings it back to how everything’s connected. It’s hard to just go treat one area without really understanding how it’s all connected. You also mentioned gut health.
So gut health postpartum. I think a lot of women during pregnancy often struggle with constipation. It’s probably more common than having diarrhea or loose stools. Women can struggle with gut health on either end of the spectrum during pregnancy and in that postpartum period.
We know gut health is so important for our mental health. So we have our delivery. It’s a very big event for the mother, whether it’s a necessary c-section or a vaginal delivery, the body goes through a period of recovery. It needs a period of recovery, because it’s gone through a lot of stress.
So simplified, we have our rest and digest system, which is the parasympathetic part of the nervous system. Then we have our fight or flight system, which actually slows down our digestion and sends the blood from our digestive tract to our muscles so that we can fight and get away.
If we are stuck in a chronic state of stress, maybe before we’ve even had our baby, from a traumatic birth, just really long tenuous labor, or from a c-section, our body is going to be more in that fight or flight stage.
We’re trying to figure out how to take care of our baby. We don’t have the time to make our meals right or even know what to eat. Our digestive system is slow just based on the physiology of the nervous system and what’s happening there.
Not to mention in most of our cultures, we’re not eating the right foods after we have our baby. So a lot of people want to go for that hamburger, or people are bringing over dishes: lovely, beautiful foods and casseroles, but they have a lot of dairy, which is inflammatory.
They have a lot of foods that can be hard to digest, for example salad.
In that postpartum period we really need to be working to support our digestive system. So that it is not so hard to go through and it can reduce the risk of hemorrhoids, prolapse and things associated with that.
It also helps the connection of our gut and mood. The vagus nerve comes from our brain down to our gut and also communicates from the gut back up to the brain. So in order to get into that rest and digest state, our vagus nerve sends signals down to bring that blood flow black to the gut. That improves digestion along with a whole host of other things.
It keeps the cell lining of the gut healthy, so we don’t have things leaking out which can create autoimmune issues, allergies and all sorts of things.
This is kind of how it’s all combined. If we’re constipated, having loose stools or something’s not right with our gut, our gut is going to communicate what’s going on in its environment up to our brain. That can then lead to mood issues such as anxiety and depression.
Is it because we’re in a state of stress postpartum that’s causing our digestion to slow down? Or is it contributed by what we’re eating? Maybe we’re eating salads, thinking we want to lose our postpartum weight and get our body back. But those solids are really hard for our gut to digest and they actually contribute to more bloating and more pain. They might even be contributing to a microbial imbalance that is playing into a mood disorder.
Maybe you’re not getting enough omega threes in your diet? The foods that we’re eating need to replenish the minerals and vitamins that we lost from growing our baby for nine months. If you’re breastfeeding and continue to nourish your baby, all those vitamins and minerals are being lost through that process.
Absolutely. It all makes sense. So you give birth and you’re not exactly taking care of recovery systems with nutrition and lifestyle. Then you get issues and the stress added on top that your recovery isn’t going that well. After you get all of the different things that can happen when the recovery doesn’t go well, so long-term symptoms. Then you have the stress layered upon layer. All that stress is not going to help digestion.
You’re stuck in this cycle. You’re stressed, you’re not eating the right foods. It’s kind of all coming at once and your system can’t handle that.
Your hormonal system can’t handle that. Your serotonin is in your gut too. 80% to 90% of your serotonin is stored and released in your gut. It’s your happiness chemical. A lot of times we think it’s in the brain. If there’s gut dysfunction, that vagus nerve signaling is off. So the chronic stress and the gut is going to play into all of those potential hormone cascades that can happen, if we don’t address that.
We get stuck. It’s hard to change our habits. As a new mom, we’re learning all of these new habits. We’re learning how to set boundaries. We’re learning how to ask for what we need. We need to learn how to receive support. So many women struggle with either not being able to ask for help or not willing to receive the support that is around them.
Lack of support is so common. We should be raising our children in communities. We should be having support around us. That’s just not the way things are that often.
Also your body changes. Your abdominal wall gets stretched out. Your pelvic floor gets stretched out in order to have good gut motility. We need your diaphragm to be moving. We need good abdominal wall strength and pelvic floor strength to really support your digestive system in the abdominal canister.
Both those muscles create pressure in that canister of your abdominal wall. That helps move the food through the gut system or through the GI system. Alterations in posture or diastasis changes pressure. Those can cause incontinence and prolapse, but they’re also contributing to difficulty to digest things, lack of motility or movement of food through the system. So all that can also contribute to hormone imbalance.
Then we see women years down the road, struggling with compounding issues. It’s not often that you hear people making this connection. This is the time to go back and start caring for women in a better way.
You’d also brought up nutrition during that time. Typically we women aren’t thinking about what we need to nourish our bodies to recover in the best way. People are bringing over casseroles and whatever. Because I’m a functional nutritionist, my thought is about personalizing nutrition at every phase of our life. What does our body need right now?
Depending on the phase we are in our lives, like when we’re in a phase of recovery from something like childbirth, surgery, stress, trauma or whatever might’ve come up during this experience, our nutritional needs will be different.
Totally, bone broth is so nourishing postpartum and it has tons of minerals. It has collagen to help with tissue repair. If a woman is trying to be vegetarian or vegan, they might not be getting some of those micronutrients that they actually need from meat products.
During this phase, it might not be the time for you to follow that diet. I understand people have their reasons for not eating meat, but you might not be able to get all of your nutrients from your diet. If you have that kind of diet, supplements are great, but they only go so far. Especially if your gut is not healthy, you can take supplements all day. But if you’re not absorbing those supplements, they aren’t going to help you. So really looking at improving that functional gut health too, so that your body’s actually absorbing the things that you’re putting in it.
So what can you do to shift things, if you have all these issues?
First working on starting to recognize, “What things are draining me?” What activities in your life are draining your energy. When you commit to doing something, how do you feel on the inside? Are you motivated and excited or bored and annoyed?
So just start to recognize where you are giving your energy to. How are you living your life? Are you satisfied with how your life is? If not, what are some areas where you need to make some changes? Do you need to change up some relationships? Do you need to have stronger boundaries? Do you need to change what you’re doing for work?
These things are not easy changes, but if you don’t address them it’s just going to get worse. It’s not going to change, if you don’t do anything about it.
Obviously overhauling your life is never easy. But let’s talk about some simple things. I think practicing mindfulness, especially around eating, can be huge and it’s something that’s simple. When you eat, slow down, chew your food.
I don’t think it’s ever too late to adopt a postpartum diet. So if you eat salads and struggle with gas and bloating. Your system might actually want you to cook your vegetables. It might want you to have more warm foods. A lot of this is person dependent too. If we look at Ayurvedic medicine and their dosha’s, everyone has a different constitution.
What kind of food is going to be best for you really does depend on your phase of life, your personal makeup and constitution. Whether that’s from an Ayurvedic, Chinese medicine or whatever sort of lens, it should really be individualized for where you’re at.
But start to listen to your body. What is your body telling you? If it’s not feeling good, that’s a sign, that’s a sign that your body’s trying to tell you something. So often we just wait and push back ourselves, because we need to take care of the kids, we need to do this or we need to do that. Our health gets deprioritized. We think, “I’ll deal with it this summer, because I have more time in summer.” Then summer comes and your schedule is filled. You keep putting it off, because there’s no time.
Make time for yourself, pray, practice mindfulness and slow down, especially while you’re eating, if you’re struggling with gut health. Work on managing your stress. There are simple things you can do. Start working with your vagus nerve and trying to calm your nervous system down. Try to get the support you need around you as well.
I love that last part too, because I teach that. Breath exercises are one of the best ways we can just shift that dial over to rest and digest. Just by focusing on the breath.
A lot of times, if you’ve done meditation or you’ve tried doing breathing practices, maybe they didn’t really work or made you feel worse.
If you’ve had a lot of traumatic experiences, a very traumatic birth, you’re sick or you don’t feel safe in your body, because of something that’s happened and you try to do an exercise that brings you into your body, that can actually keep you in a state of stress and in a state of trauma.
Sometimes that can actually be too much of an exercise. Maybe working with a practitioner who does some somatic bodywork to tap into your body in a different way can be helpful too. So some breathing exercises are too advanced for some individuals. If that’s your case, it’s a good reason to seek support.
Personalizing it for sure. That’s a good point to make.
Generally, I love breath exercises and mindfulness. I think getting that diaphragm really working again postpartum, especially after babies smashing it up, can be really helpful at reducing anxiety and helping to calm stress.
Yeah. There are so many tools out there. I always tell people to find what works for them.
One of my favorite vagus nerve hacks is to sing and hum. I think that’s like one of my best tools as a mom too, because our kids respond to that. Our kids respond to our nervous system state. If you are feeling anxious, your child’s more likely to feed off of your anxiety.
Especially in the first few years of their life, you’re modeling their resilience. Their nervous system development is really being modeled off of how you’re showing up, and how the people close in their lives are showing up and modeling resilience and stress management for them.
So I love humming, because it calms you down and can calm you down really quickly. Your vagus nerve has innovations into the middle ear. So this is how that works by creating the sound. It can tune into that part of the vagus nerve and sends signals into the brain to help calm you down.
This is also great for people who may try breathing exercises or meditation, and are constantly wandering off. If you do vocal toning, humming or making a vowel sound, while you’re doing a meditation practice, that can actually help you stay a little bit more focused and more present. Pick whatever sound resonates with you, because again it’s individualised.
If you’re with your kids and they are starting to drive you up the wall, or if you’re just feeling like everything’s moving in a million different directions and you’re really stressed, you can just hum on the exhale. Maybe you have a favorite song that you just want to hum. You can pick a couple of those that you can remember to do at that moment a few times, maybe a few cycles on each exhale. You can do it loud enough so your kids can hear, but you can do it quietly as well.
If you need everyone to calm down, maybe say, “Hey, let’s have a humming party. Everybody together.” See if you can get everyone to calm down or sing a song together, because that’s really calming for the nervous system. That’s just one hack, there’s so many other things that we can do.
This has been so helpful. I know some ladies out there are going to be finding this super helpful. Thank you.
Find out more:
Connect with Tara on Instagram @therhythmmama, where you will find the link to her website and her free meditation to reconnect to your body, breath and pelvic floor.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, manage, or treat disease or serious conditions. Always check with your doctor before making any changes. It’s important to consult a well-informed health practitioner for personal advice about your situation before relying on general information — we’re all wonderfully unique.
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Laurie Villarreal, FNLP, CHWC, FNS, LMC, CPT, RYT
Hi, I'm Laurie, a functional nutritionist and board certified health coach, athlete, dog-mom, and biohacking adventure-lover. After having struggled for years to find lasting solutions for my own debilitating hormone-related symptoms, I created my online practice to begin helping other active, driven women get the support they need. I now help women around the world elevate their health, energy, business and life by optimizing their hormones with personalized nutrition and lifestyle tweaks. Together, we discover new tools and strategies that keep you showing up at your best so you can play even bigger in your life and work.
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