Low Levels of “Love Hormone” Oxytocin Linked to Postpartum Depression Risk

Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

A small Swiss study published this month in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology suggests a possible connection between low oxytocin levels in late pregnancy and risk for postpartum depression.

Oxytocin is a fascinating hormone to look at in light of postpartum depression as it is so strongly associated with bonding and connection between mother and baby. Known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin is a big part of a new mother’s life: It causes labor contractions, it’s released during breastfeeding, and is associated with bonding, nurturing behavior.

Previous research has shown that moms with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to coo and smile at their babies and speak in the loving, playful voice scientists call “motherese” than mothers with low levels.

A study last year suggested that the more time a dad spends with his newborn the higher his levels of oxytocin. One characteristic of postpartum depression is a feeling of detachment or lack of interest in the baby or sometimes feelings of wanting to harm the baby (though these are rarely acted upon.)

In this study, researchers in Switzerland measured oxytocin levels in 73 healthy pregnant women during the third trimester. The women were screened for a risk of depression during pregnancy and within two weeks of giving birth. Based on these screening tests 14 women were determined to be at risk for postpartum depression. These women also had lower levels of oxytocin. The risk of depression was not different between breastfeeding and formula feeding mothers. This is the first study to look at postpartum risks and oxytocin levels during pregnancy.

Curt A. Sandman PhD of the University of California in Irvine spoke to WebMD, pointing out several limitations to the study including the fact that the first two weeks of postpartum is a time most women go through mood changes that may have no relationship to postpartum depression risk whatsoever. He also said, “there is a small literature about prenatal hormonal risk for PP depression and this adds to it and as such is a valuable contribution.”

Despite attempts to make a firm connection between specific hormone levels and postpartum depression, no clear link has been established. It’s not that there is no connection between hormones and happiness — there likely is — but studies thus far have not shown anything conclusive. This is because there are many factors contributing to postpartum depression and other postpartum mood disorders.

A 1998 UCLA review of the literature on postpartum depression and hormones up to that point, makes this important point: “It is possible that no biological etiologies are specific to the postpartum, but rather the birth of a child may represent a major stressful life event that, in vulnerable women, precipitates a depressive episode. Clearly, psychosocial stressors contribute to the syndrome in many women: a lack of support, marital conflict, unemployment, an unplanned pregnancy, single motherhood, and younger age are some factors associated with postpartum depression. Infant factors, including high levels of irritability and poor motor behavior also increase the likelihood of maternal depression. Future research on the biological factors that may underlie postpartum mood disorders should attempt to control for these variables, as they otherwise are likely to confound the data.” (Read the full review at Psychiatry Online.)

Of course the lifestyle and genetic factors listed above may influence hormone levels, so there’s a chicken/egg component to this as well.

“It’s difficult to untangle,” said Gunther Meinlschmidt, a psychobiologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland who led this new study on oxytocin. “It might go in both directions, sort of a vicious circle.”

Oxytocin is released in labor and during breastfeeding, but it’s also released when you feel safe or in love (e.g. the result of a good massage, when it’s dark, and during orgasm.) Oxytocin production is inhibited by vasopressin, the fight or flight hormone. This is why labor sometimes stalls if you become extremely worried and fearful of someone or something that you perceive as threatening to you. It also explains why having good, reassuring, and continuous labor support has been shown to actually shorten the length of labors and reduce the need for medical interventions.

I’m not sure that this study has much to offer, but I’m always enthusiastic about oxytocin and/or postpartum depression research.

There are some ways to help oxytocin flow for labor and postpartum, whether or not this will prevent PPD, I am skeptical … but oxytocin is generally a welcome hormone during the childbearing years.

  • Talk about what scares you now; you don’t have to be tough and it’s good to get this stuff out.
  • Make sure you feel very comfortable and trusting of your health-care provider and if not, switch.
  • Consider having someone with you during labor who will support you and give you the reassurance you need at this vulnerable time. Alternately, do not have people around you in labor who judge you and make you feel scared or weak.
  • Get support postpartum. (This is mentioned in pretty much all the literature on reducing PPD risk.)
  • Get support with breastfeeding (because it can be hard at first but can eventually be very nice and certainly healthy for mom and baby).
  • Get a prenatal massage (or two or three) as you approach your estimated due date, or at least have your partner rub your back or feet.
  • Avoid artificial oxytocin in the form of pitocin (the induction drug) if possible.
  • Dim the lights and have sex (or at least orgasms) whenever you want.
Article Posted 5 years Ago

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