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‘Extremely Important’ Blood Test Could Predict Postpartum Depression

Postnatal blood test developed by British doctors deemed breakthrough in treatment for new mothers.

Having a baby should be a joyful time and a reason for celebration. Unfortunately, many women struggle with a mix of emotions—not all happiness and rainbows—after giving birth. If you have experienced childbirth, you know the feeling of delight, terror, anxiety and excitement all rolled into one. You are thrilled to have your baby with you at last, excited for the future, but also worried and scared.

You may also have experienced depression during this tumultuous time. If you did, you are not alone. Many women, up to 15 percent of new mothers, have symptoms of postpartum depression. This is a condition that is worse than just a couple of mood swings or a mild case of the “baby blues.” The good news is that new research has come up with a way to use a simple blood test to predict a woman’s likelihood of developing postpartum depression. With advanced knowledge, preparation and prevention, many women could better learn to cope with this disorder.

Postpartum Depression

The jumble of emotions that women feel after giving birth are normal and to be expected. The mood swings and moderate to mild feelings of depression can be blamed on hormone shifts and the major life change that has just occurred. Postpartum depression, on the other hand, is more severe. Although it has long come with a stigma attached, this condition does not signify a flaw in a woman. It does not mean she loves her child any less than another mother. It is a medical condition over which she has no control.

The symptoms of postpartum depression are similar to those of mild cases of the baby blues, but much more severe. If you have postpartum depression you may feel extreme sadness, guilt, anxiety, shame, and severe mood swings. You may also have trouble sleeping, eating, being interested in sex or other activities, or bonding with your baby. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or in a new mother you know, it is important to see a doctor for help. As a medical condition, depression will not cure itself. Professional treatment is needed.

The Genetic Link

A recent study out of the United Kingdom has isolated genetic components that make some women more vulnerable to having postpartum depression. The causes of this kind of depression are not really that simple. Each individual is different and there are environmental factors that can play a role as well as these genetic factors. However, the genes represent a significantly increased risk for women who have them.

When women are pregnant, their levels of the hormone estrogen rise, which can cause levels of another hormone called cortisol to rise. Cortisol is a stress hormone. The increased estrogen can also make women more sensitive to other hormones. These changes in hormones are linked to depression, and while some women recover from the changes easily after giving birth, some do not. Those who do not may be able to blame their genes.

A simple blood test, taken early on during pregnancy for other reasons, could include a screening for the genetic factors linked to postpartum depression. The test would be fairly inexpensive and could help more women prepare for the chance that they could experience serious depression after giving birth.

Professor Dimitris Grammatopoulos, who led the research at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, described the research as being “extremely important.”

“At the moment, women only go to their GP once their symptoms are already severe,” Grammatopoulos said. “This new process will help identify, provide early support and if necessary, treatment, and even prevent the illness. This innovative research can lead to development of a new patient pathway. This is a fantastic example of how personalised medicine can transform the way healthcare is delivered.”

Prevention and Treatment

While a blood test and the new information about genes that contribute to postpartum depression cannot cure a woman with the disorder, it can help her prepare. With the knowledge that she is at an increased risk for depression, a woman would have the opportunity to make lifestyle changes that could prevent the more severe symptoms. She could also learn more about the condition to be ready to recognize the symptoms if they arise.

Knowing about a predisposition for postpartum depression would also give a woman and her doctor the chance to work together to treat her condition. If doctors know that their patients may suffer from depression, they can educate them and give them options for treatment and care. Because so many women suffer from this terrible condition, these recent discoveries represent an important advance in mental health care. Knowledge is power and when women learn more about their own mental health, they gain the ability to take charge and do something about it.

There is still hope.

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