You may have heard it described as the “baby blues” or downplayed as mom being sad after the baby was born. A new study that suggests postpartum depression may one day be preventable is predicting new hope for moms in the future.
To be counted as postpartum depression, a major depression must start within the first four weeks after a woman gives birth. Up to 70 percent of women experience some degree of postpartum depression within the first week after giving birth. Most of these women recover quickly. But for up to 13 percent of new moms, the baby blues result in clinical-level depression.
The process of pregnancy and giving birth puts a woman on a hormonal roller coaster. Researchers have known for some time that in the first three to four days after giving birth, a woman’s estrogen levels plunge 100 to 1,000 fold. At the same time, many women suffer from sadness, mood swings, anxiety, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and irritability.
A recent study by Julia Sacher from the MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and Jeffrey H. Meyer from Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada uncovered another significant chemical change in the brains of women shortly after giving birth. The study revealed that as the levels of estrogen drop, the levels of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) increase by a proportionately high amount throughout the woman’s brain. MAO-A is known to cause the breakdown of certain neurotransmitters that help signals travel between the nerve cells in the brain. These neurotransmitters, which include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, are known to have a strong influence on mood. If our levels of these neurotransmitters are low, we feel sad and have a high risk of becoming depressed.
The new study used PET imaging to examine the levels of MAO-A in the brains of women. They found that women who had just had a baby had on average 43 percent higher levels of MAO-A than women who never had children or who had children long before the test. High levels of MAO-A equate to low levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin.