While previous studies have revealed the countless outside factors that can contribute to mothers’ postpartum depression, including exposure to natural light and the gender of the baby, a new study found that there could be a biological push behind such depressive symptoms.
Researchers from the Van Andel Research Institute discovered that heightened levels of inflammation throughout the body during pregnancy can be the catalyst for depressive symptoms in women.
“Pregnancy-related depression is common yet poorly understood,” said researcher Dr. Lena Brundin. “Biologically speaking, pregnancy is a major inflammatory event that can upend many of the body’s day-to-day molecular processes. If we can better understand these irregularities, it could lead to new ideas about how best to treat prenatal depression.”
Effects of inflammation
Recent studies have shown how inflammation can have negative effects on both physical and mental health, including increasing the risk for depression. To understand how it affects pregnant women, the researchers looked at blood samples from 165 women, analyzing the levels of several types of hormones and the effects they could be having on women during and after pregnancy.
The study revealed that pregnancy affects the body’s processes in ways that many may not have realized before, including levels of hormones and inflammatory chemicals -- two factors that can contribute to severe depressive symptoms that can last beyond pregnancy.
Higher levels of inflammatory chemicals were at the heart of the pregnant women’s depressive symptoms. The researchers learned that when these levels are raised, it prevents the body from creating serotonin, which helps to boost mood.
Not only were serotonin levels found to be lower in most of the women tested, but their depression symptoms were more severe when serotonin levels were lower.
While pregnant women are flooded with information on how to combat pregnancy-related depression, this condition can be difficult to pin down for medical professionals. Moving forward, the researchers hope that these findings highlight the severity of this condition so women can receive proper treatment.
“Inflammation is an important and normal part of the immune system and, in early pregnancy, prevents the mother’s immune system from attacking the fetus,” said researcher Dr. Eric Achtyes.
“However, when the inflammatory reaction is protracted or more intense than is optimal, it may lead to worsening depression in a subset of vulnerable women. Hopefully, this study will allow us to develop treatments that more specifically target those who are at risk for an ‘inflammatory prenatal depression.”