Over more than a decade, CAMH’s Dr. Jeffrey Meyer and his team have used brain imaging to discover the causes of depression. Their research led to the development of a natural dietary supplement that reduces baby blues, a precursor to postpartum depression.
This is significant; 13 per cent of new moms experience postpartum depression, often with considerable and lasting impacts on their lives and relationships.
Based on early, promising results, the supplement is now being tested in a large randomized controlled trial among women who have just given birth.
The research: a treatment for the baby blues
“Developing successful nutrition-based treatments, based on neurobiology, is rare in psychiatry,” says Dr. Meyer, who holds a Canada Research Chair in the Neurochemistry of Major Depression. “We believe our approach also represents a promising new avenue for creating other new dietary supplements for medicinal use.”
The nutritional kit consists of three supplements. They were carefully selected to compensate for a surge in the brain protein MAO-A, which occurs in the early postpartum phase, and which also resembles a brain change that persists for longer periods in clinical depression. Both findings were discovered in previous brain imaging studies by Dr. Meyer’s group in the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH.
MAO-A breaks down three brain chemicals that help maintain mood: serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. When these chemicals are depleted, it can lead to feelings of sadness. MAO-A levels peak five days after giving birth, the same time when postpartum blues are most pronounced.
“Postpartum blues affect up to 75 per cent of all women who have given birth,” says Senior Research Fellow Dr. Yekta Dowlati, who administered the study. “Usually they resolve 10 days after giving birth, but when symptoms are intense, the risk of postpartum depression increases four-fold.”
The kit includes tryptophan and tyrosine, which compensate for the loss of the three mood-regulating chemicals, as well as a blueberry extract with blueberry juice for anti-oxidant effects.
The initial study included 21 women who received the supplements and a comparison group of 20 mothers who did not. It was an open-label study, meaning the women knew they were receiving nutritional supplements. The supplements were taken over three days, starting on the third day after giving birth.
On day five after giving birth — when the baby blues peak — the women underwent tests to assess the kit’s effect on mood. The testing included sad mood induction, which measured the ability to be resilient against sad events. The women read and reflected on statements with sentiments that expressed pessimism, dissatisfaction and lethargy, and then listened to a sad piece of classical music. Before and after this test, researchers measured depressive symptoms.
The results were dramatic. Women who were not taking the supplements had a significant increase in depression scores. In contrast, women taking the dietary supplements did not experience any depressed mood.
“We believe this is the first study to show such a strong, beneficial effect of an intervention in reducing the baby blues at a time when postpartum sadness peaks,” says Dr. Meyer. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The journey from discovery to treatment
Another important question is whether new mothers would be willing to take a supplement. Research suggests they will.
Dr. Meyer’s team had previously shown that taking supplements of tryptophan and tyrosine didn’t affect the overall concentrations of these substances in breast milk, alleviating one potential concern.
And a 2018 market research survey of pregnant women in the U.S. and Canada showed that women are interested in taking the supplement after giving birth.
Since severe postpartum blues significantly heighten the risk of postpartum depression, this supplement kit, which received a U.S. patent in 2018, is anticipated to be an integral part of a dietary supplement regimen that health-care providers could one day recommend widely to prevent postpartum depression, the researchers say.