A latest Northwestern Medicine study links higher oxytocin levels in the third trimester of pregnancy to effectively predict the severity of postpartum depression symptoms in women who have a history of struggling with depression.
There are more than 3 million cases of postpartum depression in the U.S. every year, exposing women to extreme feelings of sadness, anxiety and exhaustion that can incapacitate their ability to take care of themselves and their family.
- Symptoms of postpartum depression include:
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, exhaustion and being overwhelmed
- Having trouble bonding with the baby
- Crying more often than usual
- Waking up too early and not being able to go back to sleep
- More worrying or anxiety
- Frequent aches and pains, and headaches
- Changes in appetite and bowel patterns
- Thinking of harming oneself and the baby
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone and a brain neurotransmitter responsible for many functions in the body such as delivery, lactation, mother-child bonding and stress management.
It is widely referred to as the love hormone due to its effects on behavior, including its function in love and as well as female reproduction, such as childbirth and breastfeeding.
The study involved 66 pregnant, healthy women who demonstrated no symptoms of depression. Their oxytocin levels in the third trimester were measured and their depression symptoms were assessed six weeks postpartum. Among the employed group, 13 of the women held a history of depression prior to their becoming pregnant. Assessments yielded that the higher their oxytocin levels, the more depressive symptoms these women faced at six weeks.
The study was published in Archives of Women’s Mental Health.
“There’s emerging research that a past history of depression can change the oxytocin receptor in such a way that it becomes less efficient,” Massey says. “Perhaps, when women are starting to experience early signs of depression, their bodies release more oxytocin to combat it.”
Guilt and shame often accompany postpartum depression as mothers look at it more as a personal failure at a time when they should be nothing but happy. Feelings of helplessness and shame reduce the chances of seeking or accepting help. However, if there are substantiated chances of identifying women with possible risks of developing postpartum depression, then preventative measures can be taken in time. Because untreated depression has far-reaching repercussion on not just the women but their children as well, the ability to predict this disorder beforehand is invaluable.
“It’s not ready to become a new blood test yet,” emphasized lead investigator Dr. Suena Massey. “But it tells us that we are on the track to identifying biomarkers to help predict postpartum depression.”
Just as for other nonpsychiatric complications, frequent screening for postpartum depression is the usual process to identify maternal mental health issues before the problem becomes more severe. Several groups work to promote education about postpartum depression and support women to share their experiences. Several bills currently are pending in Congress, supported by the National Coalition of Maternal Mental Health, to request grants to states for screening and treating maternal depression.
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About the author
Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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