New Study Links Phthalates to Postpartum Depression

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Postpartum depression (PPD) is a serious psychiatric condition that affects about 15 percent of women. It can make you feel sad, hopeless, and overwhelmed. It can interfere with your ability to bond with and care for your baby.

The cause of postpartum depression is not completely understood. One cause may be hormone fluctuations that occur during and after pregnancy, especially the hormone progesterone. This hormone is important in regulating your menstrual cycles and in supporting the early stages of pregnancy. It also has a role in regulating your mood.

One problem with postpartum depression is that there is not much you can do to prevent it, other then basic healthy lifestyle choices like getting enough sleep, exercising, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. A new study from researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City may have found a contributing cause of PPD and a possible way to reduce your risk.

The study is published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Previous research shows that chemical plastics called phthalates can interfere with progesterone levels. Since low levels of progesterone may contribute to PND, the researchers wanted to see if pregnant women with higher exposure the phthalates were  at higher risk for PPD.

Phthalates are called “everywhere chemicals” because they are hard to avoid. They are used to make plastic flexible and soft. They are used to make soft plastic toys, nipples for baby bottles and pacifiers, and shower curtains. They are also used in lots of personal care products like hair spray, nail polish, lotions, and soaps. They are often used in products that have fragrances to maintain fragrance over time.

Phthalates are so common that they can be found in soil and water samples, and  in almost everyone’s urine. Exposure levels are higher in women than men, probably because of exposure in beauty products. Even through most people have some phthalates detectable in their urine, the amount can be much higher in some people than others.

In the study, researchers followed 139 women through pregnancy and after pregnancy. At 4 months after giving birth, the women were evaluated with a test called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. At various points throughout pregnancy, the women had their progesterone levels checked and their urine checked for phthalates.

The key finding of the study was  that women who had higher levels of phthalates had lower levels of progesterone. These women had about a 50 percent higher risk of developing PPD. Although this is the first study to find this link, and more studies need to be done, the researchers think lowering phthalate exposure could be a way to reduce the risk of PPD.

Besides the possible PPD link, high phthalate exposure has been linked to developmental problems in children and possible damage to the lungs, kidneys, and reproductive system. PPD is just one more reason to avoid phthalates. Phthalates have been banned from use in toys, but they are still being used in other products, especially beauty and fragranced products.

The best way to avoid phthalates is to check the label. It should say phthalate-free. Check to make sure all your personal care products are phthalate-free, especially perfumed products. Finally, even though phthalates are being used less, they still show up in recycled plastics. Check the recycle label on the bottom of plastic containers. Avoid containers marked 1 or 7. Those marked 2, 4, or 5 should be safe.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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