Could Oxytocin Treat Postpartum Depression?

Studies suggest the "feel-good" hormone oxytocin might be the key to helping new moms with postpartum depression, or PPD. But is it too soon for a treatment?

Could Oxytocin Treat Postpartum Depression? Dubova/Shutterstock

All mothers want the best for their babies. But for the ten to 20 percent of new moms with postpartum depression (PPD), their psychological condition can actually negatively impact their babies. But how can women with PPD best be helped? A review of the current evidence found that a naturally occurring hormone in the brain, oxytocin, may hold promise for a new way to treat PPD—but it's not clear exactly how to harness the chemical's effects.

New hope, but more research needed

The report, published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, looked at 50 studies on postpartum depression and oxytocin (OT) to see how PPD affects parenting, how oxytocin affects parenting, and how oxytocin affects PPD. The results shows that PPD is associated with less positive interactions between moms and babies. On the other hand, oxytocin, the "love" hormone naturally released through close contact and breastfeeding, was associated with better bonding between mother and child.

So, can oxytocin help moms suffering from PPD better interact with their babies? Well, not quite. There were only four studies that looked at the connection between postpartum depression and oxytocin. Not surprisingly, two of them found the natural levels of OT in women with PPD to be low. The other two studies measured the rates of postpartum depression in women who were given manufactured oxytocin—and surprisingly, the drug didn't have a positive effect. Each study used a different way of administering the hormone, one through an IV and one with a nasal spray. But both actually had the opposite effect of what was intended: The women's depressive symptoms actually became worse after being given OT.

The review's author, Beth L. Mah, Ph.D., of the Mothers and Babies Research Centre at the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Australia, says we simply don't have enough information to assume that OT can lower postpartum depression. "I'm not sure that we know OT is associated with decreased PND [postnatal depression, another term for PPD]," she says. "There is very little literature on OT and depression generally, let alone in PND. OT improves sensitive care giving but we don't have enough evidence to use it in PND."

It's also not clear why naturally occurring oxytocin seems to be linked with less instances of postpartum depression, but administering it to women doesn't have the same effect. "All we can say is that in two studies, mood was lowered immediately after OT administration," Mah says. "We don't know what happens a day or a week after one administration, so saying that it worsens PND is only true for the immediate effects." It could be that the chemical simply brings out whatever feelings the women are already having. "There is some evidence that OT enhances the emotional state of the person, so this may explain why it worsens low mood in PND," Mah says.

What should you do if you think you have PPD?

Because of all the missing info, Mah says that much more research is needed before we can think about using oxytocin to treat PPD. "It is not a treatment yet, it is a chemical of interest," she says. Could it be an effective treatment for PPD in the future? "This is exactly why psychiatric researchers are doing these studies—we don't know and we are trying to find out," she says. "It may become a treatment for a specific subset of patients," depending on their particular mental state.

In the meantime, the current treatment for PPD, which may include psychological therapy, medication, counseling and support groups, is working to decrease the condition in women, Mah says. So, if you think you may be suffering from postpartum depression, contact your doctor right away to get help. The best way you can take care of your baby is to take care of yourself first.