Sometimes, pregnancy is one of the happiest times of a woman’s life, but for some women, pregnancy is a miserable time. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, up to 25% of pregnant women have clinical depression.
Too often, depression during pregnancy is dismissed as a “hormonal imbalance.” This dismissal is dangerous for the mother and even the unborn baby, who has a higher risk of suffering from depression in their life, if the mother did so during her pregnancy.
Two papers, one from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and the other from Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan, recently arrived at the same conclusions: the lower the pregnant woman’s vitamin D level, the more likely she is to get clinical depression.
The Dutch paper, authored by Dr Joke Branderbarg and colleagues, found that pregnant women with low levels of vitamin D were 3 times more likely to get clinical depression during pregnancy. After multiple adjustments, they still found a very significant linear association. The authors plotted out the nearly 4,300 vitamin D levels they obtained and found this straight line going down, the lower the vitamin D level the more the depression. Women who had levels around 60-70 ng/ml had the least depression.
Brandenbarg J, Vrijkotte TG, Goedhart G, van Eijsden M. Maternal Early-Pregnancy Vitamin D Status Is Associated With Maternal Depressive Symptoms in the Amsterdam Born Children and Their Development Cohort. Psychosom Med. 2012 Aug 9. [Epub ahead of print]
Dr. Cassidy-Bushrow and colleagues found similar results in African American women in Detroit, but twice as many African American women were depressed as women from the Dutch study. Perhaps the reason was that 83% of the pregnant African American women had vitamin D levels less than 20 ng/ml, much lower than the Dutch study.
Cassidy-Bushrow AE, Peters RM, Johnson DA, Li J, Rao DS. Vitamin D Nutritional Status and Antenatal Depressive Symptoms in African American Women. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2012 Jul 23. [Epub ahead of print]
Remember that more than 80% of the vitamin D in most people’s bodies comes from the sun, so these studies are studies on sun exposure. It is perhaps plausible that bright sunshine prevented depression. However, the Dutch study controlled for outdoor activity (walking and cycling) and still found a clear vitamin D effect.
To be safe, pregnant women, or women thinking of becoming pregnant, should be sure they have a natural vitamin D level (50 ng/ml) and do this by sensible sunbathing (being sure they don’t overheat) and using vitamin D supplements (6,000 IU/day) on the days they can’t sunbathe.