After having a baby, about 10 to 15 percent of women develop postpartum depression, experiencing a deep sadness or a loss of interest in the baby and other things they once loved. It’s a debilitating disorder that strikes during what’s supposed to be an exciting time of life. But what would happen if women could see it coming before they even give birth?
Researchers at the University of Granada have developed a simple hair test that measures the stress hormone cortisol to determine women’s risk for PPD. They found that higher levels of the hormone may predict postpartum depression.
Their use of hair cortisol levels to measure chronic stress—in this case, maternal stress—within the last three months of pregnancy was described as an “innovative assessment.”
The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, followed 44 pregnant women in Spain throughout the three trimesters and postpartum period, evaluating them using psychological questionnaires and hair cortisol levels. Researchers found that hair cortisol levels were higher in the group with postpartum depression symptoms compared to the group with no symptoms in all three trimesters, but the correlation was most significant in the first and third trimesters.
How to break the cycle of postpartum anxiety
Lead researcher Maria Isabel Peralta Ramirez said the results could lead to future studies and improved maternal care, including better management and prevention of postpartum depression. “Detecting those differences is the key to anticipate the psychological state of the mother as well as the consequences for the baby that said state could mean.”
Biological testing for postpartum-related disorders could prompt women who know they’re at risk to seek early treatment, say the researchers. Then again, for those who are pregnant and stressed, it seems possible that getting a positive result on a PPD test could trigger extra anxiety, especially if there’s no support plan in place.
Despite the small sample size, the researchers say that this study’s findings are of clinical importance, as they show different health factors can be used to predict postpartum depression in new mothers and can be applied to future studies.