WOMEN'S HEALTH
April 4, 2016

The Feel-Good Hormone — Until It Isn't

Oxytocin is known as the love hormone, but it may also predict new mothers' vulnerability to depression.

The body's adjustments to pregnancy and childbirth can produce a hormonal rollercoaster. Some might even call it a tsunami. That's one reason why postpartum depression (PPD) is relatively common among new mothers. This fact was given a more public face recently when Nashville star, Hayden Panettiere, spoke about her own struggle with depression after the birth of her child and encouraged women to seek treatment for what can be a debilitating problem.

New mothers are often blindsided by PPD. They have looked forward to having their baby and then find themselves struggling with guilt when they are overwhelmed by negative feelings toward their newborn. Symptoms of PPD include anxiety, waking up and being unable to go back to sleep, aches, pains, feelings of sadness, a sense of heaviness and exhaustion and decreased appetite.

“The ability to predict which individuals are at greatest risk for developing [PPD] yields the exciting possibility of prevention.”

It would be helpful to be able to predict who will and who won't fall prey to postpartum depression, and that may soon be possible. The findings of a new study suggest that certain indicators in the blood — biomarkers — may predict a woman’s risk.

Though a blood test is not ready yet, the study “…tells us we are on the right track to identifying biomarkers of postpartum depression,” according to Suena Massey, lead investigator.

Massey and her team looked at the psychiatric history and plasma levels of oxytocin in 66 healthy pregnant women during their third trimester and then assessed their depressive symptoms six weeks after giving birth. Higher levels of the hormone oxytocin in the blood predicted greater PPD symptom severity in women with past major depressive disorder (MDD) the researchers found.

Untreated PPD can have serious consequences for women and their children. “So the ability to predict which individuals are at greatest risk for developing it yields the exciting possibility of prevention,” Massey said in a statement.

Oxytocin is released during delivery and lactation and contributes to mother-child bonding, so the researchers were surprised that higher levels of oxytocin were linked to more severe postpartum depression, when, according to Massey, they had thought lower oxytocin levels would cause more severe symptoms.

Women diagnosed with PPD feel like they are failing because they think they should be happy about their new baby. “This decreases the likelihood they will seek help,” said Massey, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Doctors routinely screen for pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes. With this potential test, they could also screen for postpartum depression, she added.

The study is published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health.

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