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Scientists Study How the "Love Hormone" Can Influence Postpartum Depression

Update Date: May 10, 2013 01:36 PM EDT

Scientists are trying to understand the role of the 'love hormone' in postpartum depression and bonding between mothers and babies.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine are now launching a 5-year-study aimed at understanding the link between depression after pregnancy and oxytocin.

Researchers say the new study is based on a smaller study recently published in the Journal of Women's Health.

While breastfeeding generally reduces postpartum depression, researchers have found a significant overlap between mothers who struggle with breastfeeding and those who have postpartum depression or anxiety symptoms.

"In this study, we measured levels of oxytocin, the 'love hormone', in mothers with mild anxiety or depression and in normal controls," Dr. Alison Stuebe, first author of the pilot study and assistant professor in UNC's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said in a news release.

"The mothers who were more anxious had lower oxytocin levels during breastfeeding. We can't tell from this study whether feeling anxious reduces oxytocin, or whether not having enough oxytocin causes anxiety, but the results suggest that the two problems are connected," she explained.

"It may be that a problem with oxytocin both contributes to postpartum depression symptoms and makes breastfeeding less enjoyable," Stuebe added.

While many new moms experience 'baby blues' symptoms like mood swings, crying spells and irritability after childbirth, some mothers experience a more severe, long-lasting form of depression called postpartum depression. Symptoms associated with postpartum depression include overwhelming fatigue, severe mood swings, intense irritability and anger, loss of appetite and thoughts of suicide or harming the baby. 

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