The ‘baby blues’ culprit

CSULB researchers find that high levels of cortisol hormone links to postpartum depression

Graphic by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
California State University, Long Beach, (CSULB) researchers found in a recent study that high levels of cortisol hormone in a woman after she experiences pregnancy, as illustrated, may face higher levels of postpartum depression (PPD) as compared to a woman with lower levels of cortisol. CSULB Department of Psychology professor Guido Urizar’s research shows that cortisol hormone is necessary for fetal-organ development, but if the levels of the hormone fail to drop following child birth, then PPD symptoms may be more frequent.

After carrying another life inside the womb for months, some mothers may experience symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD), which researchers at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), recently found was linked to cortisol hormones naturally found in the body.

CSULB Department of Psychology professor Guido Urizar, the study’s co-author Kathryn Scheyer and Partners in Research & Outreach for Health (PRO-Health) organizations conducted a four-year long study to understand and prevent PPD, according to a recent CSULB press release.

The study shows that cortisol levels rise in women during pregnancy to support fetal-organ development. Researchers observed that when cortisol levels fail to drop following pregnancy, women face elevated risks of postpartum depression.

“We were able to identify at which times, during pregnancy and postpartum, that altered cortisol levels and elevated stress in mothers were most strongly associated with [PPD], which has been shown in previous studies to have detrimental effects on the development of their infants,” Urizar states in the press release.

According to CSULB officials, the study was based on a prenatal-stress management program called Stress Management and Relaxation Training for Moms (SMART Moms), in which 100 low-income Southern California women participated between 2010 and 2014.

Yasmin Kofman, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, Department of Psychological Science, was hired as a SMART Moms course coordinator. In an email she wrote to the Signal Tribune Jan. 9, she states that research on PPD is important because it can have long-lasting negative effects on the mother and child.

“As researchers, it is critical for us to not only identify the factors and mechanisms that may contribute to postpartum depression, but also find ways to intervene,” Kofman wrote.

Those who participated were an average age of 27, and approximately 70 percent of the group were Latina.

The participants shared their perceptions of personal stress during interviews in each trimester of pregnancy, the press release states, as well as any symptoms of PPD three months after giving birth.

Kofman said that she was responsible for collecting salivary cortisol samples and conducting health interviews with the participants.

Researchers used these two methods to measure the participant’s cortisol levels and symptoms during the study.

“One of the recommendations I would make for women who are concerned about [PPD] is talking with their [obstetrician and gynecologist] OB/GYN,” Urizar said during a phone interview Jan. 9. “We noticed that a lot of women aren’t even screened for [PPD] during pregnancy or during the postpartum period, and there’s a lot of tools right now that doctors have to be able to screen for [PPD].”

The Signal Tribune reached out to Long Beach Health and Human Services officials, who Urizar said worked in conjunction with PRO-Health to develop the study.

Anissa Davis, City health officer, told the Signal Tribune during a phone interview Jan. 7 that local information on depression and PPD was difficult to obtain.

“The diseases or conditions that local health departments have the most data about are ones that are reportable, meaning that a healthcare clinician has to report or notify the health department if one of their patients gets the condition. [Some] examples are STDs,” Davis wrote in an email to the Signal Tribune Jan. 9. “For conditions that aren’t reportable, it’s more difficult. Sometimes, we can look at death-record data or survey results, but, otherwise, it’s difficult to have local data.”

PPD, or “baby blues,” is a common occurrance, with symptoms– such as mood swings– manifesting with 80 percent of new mothers, according to Mental Health America (MHA). MHA also states that clinical depression impacts 15 to 25 percent of the population.

Urizar said that researchers are currently working toward stress-management programs to help reduce PPD. Since cortisol hormones are integral to the development of fetal organs, Urizar said that natural remedies are used to not negatively tamper with cortisol’s role in pregnancy.

“We teach these more natural ways of reducing stress because it doesn’t involve [the women] taking medications,” he said. “There really isn’t a lot of information outside of research on these different techniques because we haven’t made it public yet. We’re working on that right now to see how we can make the programs more available for women in Long Beach.”