Pregnancy and stress have been discussed for many years. While postpartum depression has received much attention, stress during pregnancy needs equal attention. Recent studies suggest report that a stressful in-utero environment can cause long-term consequences for offspring through prenatal programming. This can also be dependent on the type, timing, and the sex of the offspring.1 But can stress during pregnancy increase the risk of mood disorders for female offspring? Let us understand this in detail.
Can Stress During Pregnancy Increase Risk Of Mood Disorders For Female Offspring?
In a recent analysis of study reports regarding depression during pregnancy, it was noted that about 13% of women experienced depressive episodes during pregnancy and postpartum period.2
Pregnancy is a crucial period not only for the woman but also for the developing baby in the womb. With many hormone fluctuations, there are several changes in the body and the emotional state. Stress during pregnancy can have a great impact on the pregnant woman and also on the developing fetus, which can also impact them later in their life. The prenatal period is a critical time for neurodevelopment and increased vulnerability, during which various types of exposures can cause long-term changes on the brain development and behavior that can have implications for physical and emotional health.2 It is important to understand if stress during pregnancy can increase the risk of mood disorders for female offspring.
As it is already known, maternal chronic stress during pregnancy and elevated hair cortisol concentrations are linked with gut microbiota composition. These reports have helped to understand how prenatal stress is associated with infant growth and development.3 Keeping this in view, the studies also suggested that the role of microbes could be as mediators of stress. These may play an important role in influencing the health, development, and behavior of the offspring during their life.
What Studies Say?
The rising episodes of mental health issues in children, adolescents, and adults, makes it important to evaluate the role of stress during pregnancy and its association with an increase in the risk of mood disorders for female offspring.
A recent study report throws light on this issue. This study is related to evaluating the effect of maternal stress during pregnancy on the behavior of the offspring. It reports that stress during pregnancy, which is defined by high maternal cortisol levels can increase anxious and depressive-like behaviors in female offspring at the age of 2.4
Experts believe that the effect of increased maternal cortisol on the negative offspring behavior is possibly a result of stronger communication between brain areas concerned with sensory and emotion processing. This suggests that prenatal conditions are important for the vulnerability of the later mental health problems in offspring.
In this study, the maternal cortisol during pregnancy was measured comprehensively. It included 70 mothers and the cortisol levels were measured over multiple days, during early, mid, and later pregnancy. The results showed great variations in maternal cortisol levels. Further, with the help of brain mapping the researchers, examined the connectivity in the newborns soon after birth before exposure to the external environment began shaping brain development and measured infant anxious and depressive-like behaviors at the age of 2 years.
According to the study conducted, there was a strong link that high maternal levels of cortisol during pregnancy appear to contribute to risk in females but not in males. It is known that many moods and anxiety disorders are about twice as common in females than in males. This sex-specific risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders in females is noteworthy in this study.
These findings pave way for a potential path through which the prenatal environment and particularly maternal stress can predispose females to develop mood disorders.
Stress During Pregnancy
Stress is common during pregnancy. But what are the causes of stress in pregnant women? Apart from physiological changes and hormone fluctuations, many other factors may affect the emotional state during pregnancy. Some problems that always existed may suddenly seem more worrisome during pregnancy and a pregnant woman may find it difficult to cope with various other things. Discomfort due to physical changes, nausea, backache, fatigue, mood swings, fear of pregnancy outcomes, delivery, are some of the common changes. Additionally, some women struggle with work-life balance, decisions on continuation of job, maternity leave, managing household chores, taking care of the family or elder children, financial stress, and similar other things. However, women often experience various types of stress, at different times and in varying intensity. No matter what a woman is more vulnerable to stress and emotional problems during pregnancy.
All the studies and recent researchers that continue in this field indicate that a woman’s psychological health is very important. Particularly, during pregnancy, a woman’s mental health can have consequences on fetal neurobehavioral development, resulting in child outcomes and behavior later in life. This emphasizes that mental health in women before, during pregnancy, and in the postpartum period is of utmost importance considering maternal and child health and child development after birth.
Studies suggest that gestational health is far less common than stress during pregnancy, yet there is considerable awareness regarding this.2
Regular screening for maternal blood glucose levels is done as an integral part of antenatal care. However, less attention is paid to the mental health of pregnant women or stress during pregnancy, when in fact it can have such a long-lasting impact on the offspring. As these studies suggest, stress during pregnancy can increase the risk of mood disorders for female offspring. Henceforth, the changing trends should focus on improving the monitoring of women’s mental health during pregnancy to focus on improved child development.
Now that we have seen various study reports and their interpretations, it is clear that stress during pregnancy can increase the risk of mood disorders for female offspring.