Anxiety and depression during the weeks before and after birth is not uncommon. Between 15 and 18 percent of women experience anxiety during this period. Seven to 13 percent of women struggle with depression during this time, with about 10 percent of women dealing with both anxiety and depression. A new study, one of the largest to date, finds a link between sleep changes during pregnancy and during the weeks after delivery, the health of the circadian rhythm and the likelihood of and degree of depression and/or anxiety. This valuable insight can lead to more effective interventions, promoting better treatment and prevention.
Sleep Changes During Pregnancy Impact Mental Health
The connections between sleep duration and quality, circadian rhythm health and mental health are already well established. Building upon the greater understanding of the role of sleep in overall mental health and well-being which science has gained during the past decade, researchers decided to take a closer look at sleep in relation to depression and anxiety in the peripartum and postpartum periods. Peripartum is a term that, unlike the term postpartum, includes the period of time shortly prior to delivery as well as the period of time immediately afterwards.
The study, conducted by researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, followed 73 women from the beginning of their third trimester through their twelfth week postpartum. Recently published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the study featured a team of researchers that included Professor Benicio Frey of McMaster University’s psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences department. The study participants were drawn from Women’s Health Concerns Clinic at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, a clinic specializing in the sorts of psychiatric disorders that can occur during the peripartum period, as well as those associated with perimenopausal and premenstrual periods.
During the study period, the researchers collected data from the participants concerning their sleep patterns and quality and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Data was collected both subjectively, via self-reporting, and objectively, using wearable sleep monitors and lab visits. Melatonin levels and light exposure were also measured. According to the researchers, circadian rhythm disruption and fragmented sleep were associated with a higher degree of depression and anxiety symptoms.
Findings Point to Importance of Sleep
Benicio Frey, lead study author and professor, noted that the study revealed the importance of striving to maintain circadian rhythm health during the peripartum period. Sleep timing and quality are important factors in circadian rhythm health. Maintaining this fundamental biological rhythm can help to reduce the risk of developing symptoms of peripartum depression and anxiety, promoting mood health and overall mental well-being.
Frey also expressed optimism that what his research team learned during the study could be used to develop more effective treatment and prevention strategies for peripartum depression and anxiety.
Practical, Real-Life Application
Naturally, with the care newborns require, a new mother’s sleep is certainly going to be fragmented. However, there are still a number of practical ways for a mother of a newborn to implement the information gained by this study in day-to-day life, helping to protect mental health and well-being and to better enjoy mothering.
Take advantage of the opportunity during pregnancy to prioritize healthy sleep and circadian rhythm health. Set good habits by practicing good sleep hygiene, such as setting a regular schedule for sleeping and waking, making sure your sleeping area is comfortable and getting enough physical activity during the day.
Good sleep hygiene promotes healthy sleep, but it also plays a role in helping to maintain circadian rhythm health. However, good sleep, while highly important, isn’t the only factor involved in circadian rhythm health. Since some sleep disruption is to be expected with a newborn, it just makes sense to gain better control over some of the other contributing factors.
Light is a very important factor to consider because it is the primary environmental cue for the circadian rhythm. Make sure to get enough natural light exposure, especially during the morning. Ideally, try to get that exposure outside, in combination with some physician approved physical activity, such as a walk. If that isn’t an option during the peripartum period, get natural light exposure just by sitting outside or near a window. Be mindful of evening light, reducing exposure to bright artificial light, especially during the three hours before your usual bedtime. Keep electronic devices, including your mobile phone and tablet, out of the bedroom. Too much evening light exposure interferes with the timing of melatonin production, which can delay sleep and disrupt the circadian rhythm.
Meal timing is another factor in maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. Set a meal schedule and stick to it as much as possible. Try to consume the bulk of calories earlier in the day, choosing a lighter evening meal with less carbohydrates and more of a focus on lean protein. Don’t plan a meal within two to three hours before bedtime.
Ask for Help When You Need It
Because sleep changes during pregnancy and after delivery can contribute to the risk of anxiety and depression, if your partner, family and friends offer help, accept it with an eye towards scheduling adequate sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping or are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression during pregnancy or after the baby is born, don’t hesitate in talking to your healthcare provider.