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Why New Research Links the HPA Axis to Postpartum Depression

Researchers from the Tufts University in Massachusetts have discovered a link between postpartum depression and the brain’s stress-response system. According to the Center for Disease Control, 11-20% of women experience symptoms of postpartum depression after birth. This would equate to roughly 600,000 women per year at a percentage of 15%.


The HPA axis is responsible for controlling our response to stress. The initials of HPA stand for the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands in the endocrine system. Researchers have discovered that the lack of a specific protein in the brain, known as KCC2, increases a mother’s risk for postpartum depression.

Professor Dr. Jamie Maguire stated: “Using a mouse model that we developed, our new study provides the first empirical evidence supporting the clinical observations of HPA axis dysfunction in patients with postpartum depression and shows for the first time that dysregulation of the HPA axis and a specific protein in the brain, KCC2, can be enough to induce postpartum depression-like behaviors and deficits in maternal care.”

The study’s results were published in the journal, Pyschoneuroendocrinology, showing the direct relationship for the first time between corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and KCC2. The study’s findings revealed to us the significance of CRH as the catalyst behind the stress response, and the role of KCC2 in the regulation of CRH.

Symptoms of Postpartum Depression (PPD) include:

• Feeling overwhelmed
• Feelings of guilt over the adjustment to motherhood
• Difficulty bonding with your baby
• Feelings of confusion and fright
• A lack of patience that can manifest itself in outbursts of rage or irritation
• A sense of emotional numbness
• Extreme sadness and sorrow
• Loss of appetite
• Insomnia
• Feelings of dismal failure
• A lack of focus and concentration
• Despair

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A deficiency in KCC2 is not a guilty culprit merely in the treatment of postpartum depression. Researchers are implicating a deficit of the brain protein in a host of other disorders including autism, epilepsy, chronic pain, and other stress and anxiety related disorders.

Dr. Laverne Camille Melon, first author in the study, said that she hopes to use the study’s findings concerning the role of KCC2 in the regulation of CRH neurons as a molecular target in the future treatment of postpartum depression. However, Dr. Melon is not convinced that the HPA axis is the only pathological dysfunction involved as biological mechanisms differ between women. This study will serve as a foundation for further research in the future of treatment for PDD.

Postpartum depression can affect a mother’s life for up to 6 months past birth or even longer. It can have a traumatic effect on her psychologically and emotionally as it undermines her natural maternal instincts and confidence as a new mother.

Nutritional Links to PDD

Other research suggests that a deficiency in Omega 3’s may be a nutritional factor in postpartum depression. Good sources of high omega 3’s include wild Alaskan salmon, flax seeds, and chia seeds. A deficiency in vitamin B12 may also play a role in PDD.

In conclusion, if you are a young mother suffering from postpartum depression or know one who is, remember that no mother is responsible for succumbing to PDD. This is but a short season in the beautiful story of motherhood, and you mustn’t allow feelings of guilt or self-hatred to destroy the knowledge that you have been given the responsibility and ultimately the most precious of gifts in your child. There is always hope, but giving yourself some grace goes a long way on the road to recovery from postpartum depression.

Check out these other great articles by EMaxHealth: More Than a Feeling: The Struggle of Postpartum Depression, Keep Holding Your Baby: Why Babywearing is Good for Everyone, and 4 Effective Tips to Keep Your Cool During Meltdowns and Defiance.