To What Extent is Postpartum Depression Hereditary?
Some women have raised concerns about having children because of the fear of postpartum depression, particularly if their own mothers suffered from the condition. It is a condition that affects approximately 15% of women following childbirth1, meaning that concerns are certainly valid. However, is there a genetic element to postpartum depression or not? This article shall consider the evidence regarding this question.
What is Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression is when a mother experiences depressive symptoms after giving birth, typically within the first six weeks. Symptoms of postpartum depression may include things such as sleeplessness2. Many new mothers disregard this because they expect not to be able to sleep as well with an infant; however, although this is indeed likely, if the mother cannot sleep even when the baby is, that is a sign of depression.
Other symptoms2 include an inability to focus on daily tasks, worrying all the time, loss of appetite, etc. If you believe that you may be experiencing these symptoms, regardless of whether or not you or they have recently had a baby, seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Why does Postpartum Depression Happen?
During pregnancy, levels of various hormones change. When the pregnancy has finished, these hormones return to their previous levels much quicker than when they changed over nine months of gestation. This can cause depression. Some of the most notable hormonal changes3 while pregnant include:
- increase in the production and secretion of cortisol;
- some rise in the generation of thyroid hormones;
- higher level of estrogen;
- an enormous leap in progesterone levels; and
- a massive spike in oxytocin when giving birth.
Ordinarily, hormonal balance is likely to be achieved again roughly six to eight weeks after giving birth3, though this isn’t the case for everyone. In some cases, more cortisol (which people call the stress hormone due to its connection with heightened anxiety and stress4) can lead to depressive episodes.
Is Depression Hereditary?
Generally speaking, there is mixed evidence regarding the genetic nature of depression. Some studies show that hereditary characteristics may cause people to put themselves into environments or situations of greater risk of depression4. Other research suggests that particular forms of anxiety may be hereditary, but not depression5.
However, there has been a discovery of a particular gene that is linked to depression6. The implication from scientific researchers is that approximately 40% of people with depression have developed the condition because of a genetic link, while the remaining 60% have their illness caused by environmental factors6. In fact, if someone has a parent or sibling with major depressive disorder, they are two to three times more likely than the average person to develop the condition themselves7.
Therefore, depression can be considered as being hereditary, but by no means for all cases. Nonetheless, this still doesn't determine whether or not this is the case specifically for postpartum depression, which will be evaluated in the next section.
Is There a Genetic Link with Postpartum Depression?
It has been argued that considering the wide range of factors that may contribute to postpartum depression, it is surprising that the number of women who suffer from it is as low as it is. One school of thought for explaining this is that genetic variables actually cause some women to be less likely to suffer from this terrible condition8.
Even though there has been a genetic link identified related to major depressive disorder, the same is not true for postpartum depression. A major survey of the literature associated with this topic tried to draw evidence together to find a conclusion. However, the findings of that research study were that there was insufficient documentation to support the idea of there being a specific gene responsible for postpartum depression9.
Are There Any Genetic or Medical Risk Factors Associated with Postpartum Depression?
Albeit there may not be a discovery of a specific gene linked with the prevalence of postpartum depression, there are genetic factors that may make a particular woman more likely to suffer therefrom. For example, 5HTTLPR is the name of a biological polymorphism that has been shown to link with postpartum depression9.
The majority of medical risk factors associated with postpartum depression revolve around past mental health history10. If the woman has suffered from depression or anxiety in the past, particularly during the pregnancy, the likelihood of postpartum depression is higher.
Although the root cause of postpartum depression is not fully understood, the majority of scientists and academics consider that the condition stems from hormonal changes during pregnancy and childbirth. However, there may be a genetic connection.
Symptoms of depression include sleeplessness, excessive worry, inability to make decisions, irritability, difficulty focusing, and loss of appetite, among other issues. Scientists have found a gene that they believe to be responsible for major depressive disorder, thereby concluding that there are genetic factors behind suffering from depression. However, the same cannot be said for postpartum depression. Although there may be some genetic evidence supporting a potential link to postpartum depression, it is much more likely to be caused by environmental factors or previous mental ill-health.
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