Researchers look to nutrients to offset temporary brain-chemical changes in new mothers
MONDAY, March 13, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- After childbirth, many new moms experience the "baby blues." Now, researchers suggest that just three days of an experimental dietary supplementation may vanquish the temporary sadness.
"Women who take the supplement don't get sad" in the early days of motherhood, said Dr. Jeffrey Meyer, co-author of a study testing this blues-banishing regimen.
"We also see this as a promising way to try to prevent postpartum depression," said Meyer. He is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and co-creator of the product.
Postpartum blues -- a milder condition than postpartum depression -- is thought to affect about 75 percent of women in the first week after giving birth.
It can be considered a "normal phase" marked by anxiety, moodiness and crying, said Dr. Teri Pearlstein, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
"The symptoms can be bothersome, but support and reassurance from others are usually helpful," said Pearlstein, who wasn't involved in the study.
Hoping to combat these temporary emotional swings, Meyer's team developed a dietary kit to be taken in the first three to five days after childbirth.
The ingredients? Blueberry juice and blueberry extract (antioxidants) and the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine.
To test their product, the researchers assigned 21 healthy new mothers to receive the supplementation for three days, and compared them with 20 new mothers who didn't get it (the "control" group). The mothers' average age was around 32 years.
On day five post-childbirth -- when sadness tends to peak -- those who took the supplements scored better on tests of mood. Also, women in the control group showed "robust" signs of depressed mood, while those in the supplement group did not, according to the study.
Meyer said the nutrition-based treatment is designed to "address specific changes that temporarily occur in the brain."
A surge in levels of a brain protein called monoamine oxidase (MAO-A) in some new mothers is thought to contribute to the blues. MAO-A breaks down three mood-related brain chemicals -- serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine -- which can lead to feelings of sadness, the researchers said.
According to Meyer, the supplementation didn't boost levels of tryptophan or tyrosine in breast milk. He also said the ingredients are affordable and safe unless someone is allergic to one of the components.
However, "people should wait until the regimen is approved for general use rather than trying it themselves," he stressed.
Pearlstein agreed, noting that the study findings are preliminary. "Women should not assume that buying and taking the components of this dietary supplement would prevent the development of postpartum blues or depression," she said. Still, the findings are "intriguing," she added.
The study was published online March 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although the postpartum blues are usually short-lived, research suggests that women with severe sadness in the days after childbirth are more likely to develop postpartum depression, a serious mental health issue. Postpartum depression affects an estimated 13 percent of new mothers and can lead to suicidal thoughts.
For now, "most women with the symptoms of postpartum blues can be reassured that the symptoms will resolve spontaneously," Pearlstein said.
However, if negative symptoms don't clear up or become pervasive, a woman should see her doctor, she noted. "This is important for the mother's mental health and her functioning, and to prevent negative effects on child development," she said.
The researchers caution that the study results could have been thrown off by a "placebo" effect. That theory holds that some people experience improvement simply because they expect it. Also, the study doesn't establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research partly funded the study. Meyer has a financial stake in the success of the supplement: He's listed as an inventor on a patent application for this supplement. He also reports receiving funding from several drug makers.
With additional funding, Meyer hopes to launch a more definitive study.
For more about depression after birth, see the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.