For many women, pregnancy is one of the happiest times of their lives. There is something exciting, or even magical, about bringing new life into the world. But for others, pregnancy can be a difficult, confusing and scary experience.
It's not uncommon for expectant mothers to become depressed at some point in their pregnancy.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states that anywhere between 14 and 23 percent of women deal with depressive symptoms at some point during their pregnancy.1 This is known as antepartum depression.2
Common Symptoms of Antepartum Depression
When you are pregnant, your hormones typically go through numerous changes, which can then trigger depression and anxiety. However, because pregnancy often comes with a lot of symptoms, diagnosing antepartum depression can be quite difficult, as some of the symptoms may overlap.
✓ A persistent feeling of sadness
✓ Getting excessive or insufficient sleep
✓ Lack of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
✓ Feeling anxious, guilty or worthless
✓ Changes in eating habits
✓ Low energy
✓ Difficulty concentrating
✓ Irritability and restlessness
✓ Tension or muscle aches
✓ Recurrent panic attacks
✓ Having recurring thoughts of hopelessness, death or suicide
If you experience any of these symptoms for two weeks or more, chances are you're suffering from antepartum depression.
What Causes Pregnant Women to Become Depressed?
Many health experts previously believed that hormone spikes during pregnancy helped protect women against depression, only making them more vulnerable to the disorder once their baby was born.
However, it's now believed that the rapid increase in these hormone levels at the start of pregnancy may actually alter brain chemistry, leading to depression.5
There are also risk factors that can predispose you to depression during pregnancy, which include:6
✓ Having a personal or family history of depression
✓ Relationship problems
✓ Having a previous miscarriage
✓ Fertility treatments
✓ Stressful life events
✓ History of abuse
Can Depression Affect Your Unborn Child?
If not addressed, yes, depression can affect the growing infant in a mother's tummy. This is because antepartum depression is linked to poor nutrition, smoking and drinking. In turn, the child may be at risk of low birth weight, premature birth and even developmental issues.7
One study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that there is a negative association between prenatal maternal depression and development of a fetus' amygdala.8
Antepartum Depression Versus Postpartum Depression: Know the Differences
Depression during pregnancy may be common, but did you know that it can also strike after you've given birth? This is known as postpartum depression, and occurs when the levels of progesterone and estrogen in a woman's body abruptly drop, which can trigger mood swings.9
Physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation brought on by caring for a new baby may also hinder a woman from getting the rest she needs after delivery, contributing to the symptoms.
There are cases when postpartum depression is mistaken for "baby blues," but the truth is its symptoms are more intense and may last for a longer period. In some women, it develops within the first weeks after giving birth, although in some cases, it may begin much later — up to six months after birth.10
If it's not addressed, postpartum depression can last for months. In contrast, baby blues begin within the first two to three days after giving birth, lasting for up to two weeks.11
The symptoms of postpartum depression may be similar to that of antepartum depression, but there are a few differences. For example, some mothers experience excessive crying and difficulty bonding with their baby. Some fear that they're not a good mother, and may even think about harming themselves or their baby.12
If not addressed, postpartum depression can spiral into a more intense condition called postpartum psychosis. It usually develops within the first week after delivery. Some of the hallmark symptoms of this condition include:13
• Hallucinations and delusions
• Sleep disturbances
• Having obsessive thoughts about your child
• Attempts to harm the baby or yourself
How to Help a Pregnant Woman Cope With Depression
Many physicians are quick to prescribe antidepressant medications to pregnant mothers who they suspect are struggling with depression, but beware that the use of these medications have been linked to negative effects for the baby, as they have the ability to cross the placental barrier.14
One study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) demonstrates this, as it found that the antidepressant Paxil (paroxetine), when taken during pregnancy, increased the infant's risk of five different birth defects, including heart problems and anencephaly, which is abnormal brain and skull formation. Meanwhile, Prozac (fluoxetine) was found to increase the risk of heart wall defects and craniosynostosis (abnormal skull shape).15
Instead of turning to medications to curb depression during your pregnancy, it's best to consult a physician who will help you come up with a drug-free approach to address your condition. The following are safe ways to address antepartum and postpartum depression:
✓ Dramatically decrease your intake of sugar, grains and processed foods, which can promote inflammation (which is said to be a potential risk factor16 for depression) and affect your brain function and mental state.
✓ Get enough vitamin B12 and increase your intake of animal-based omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are actually crucial for good brain function and mental health.
✓ Optimize your vitamin D levels through sun exposure. If your gut flora is abnormal, your baby's gut flora will be as well. Numerous studies found that having a healthy gut is essential for both physical and mental health.
✓ Load up on fermented foods.
✓ Insufficient sodium intake can trigger symptoms that are similar to depression, so make sure to evaluate your salt intake. Ideally, you should use an all-natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt.
✓ Get enough moderate exercise and sufficient amounts of sleep.