Oxytocin levels in pregnant women may, in some cases, indicate later symptoms of postpartum depression. According to a US study published in the “Archives of Women’s Mental Health”, these levels should therefore be closely monitored in women who have previously suffered from depression.
Scientists from Northwestern University in Chicago (Illinois) included 66 healthy pregnant women in their study. Of these, 13 had a prior history of depression. Researchers measured the oxytocin levels in the third trimester and whether the women had any symptoms of postpartum depression symptoms six weeks after delivery.
The result surprised the researchers, because it became clear that precisely the opposite of what they had expected was the case. In participants with a prior history of depression, higher oxytocin levels during pregnancy correlated with more depressive symptoms after delivery. Symptoms included waking early and not being able to get back to sleep, more anxiety and worrying, pain, headaches, changes in digestion, heavy limbs, feeling tired, feeling sad and experiencing changes in appetite.
There are indications that depression can make oxytocin receptors less effective, explained study author Suena Massy. “Perhaps, when women are starting to experience early signs of depression, their bodies release more oxytocin to combat it.”
In any case, the study presents a step towards finding biomarkers for postpartum depression. In view of the consequences for mother and child, screening for pregnancy-related depression should become just as routine as screening for physical complications such as gestational diabetes, urged Massey.