Can psilocybin effectively treat postpartum depression? Many think so.
We’re living in a maternal health care crisis. In the United States, we’re facing a myriad of crises affecting the health of American mothers: shockingly high maternal mortality rates, challenges to women’s rights to abortion, limited parental leave, and increasing post-partum depression.
It’s not easy being a woman in America these days, where we have the highest maternal mortality rate in the developing world, an assault on women’s right to choose from the far right and religious groups, and the challenges that come with gender inequality in the workplace exacerbated by COVID parenting challenges, a burden that unequally fell upon women.
Childbirth is a difficult process—and there are a number of hormonal, physical, emotional, and psychological changes throughout pregnancy. Not to mention the life-changing experience and responsibility of bringing a baby into the world we live in.
But, enough with the optimism (we kid!)
For most new parents, the arrival of a baby is a mixture of joy, uncertainty and a complete upheaval of the way life once was. The transition can be challenging, and all new moms and dads must find ways to cope with the difficulties while settling into their new roles as caregivers and nurturers. Sometimes, new parents experience the “baby blues,” a phrase coined to describe the worry, sadness and tiredness many women experience after having a baby. But when symptoms are more severe, a new mother may be experiencing postpartum depression.
And with psychedelics showing great promise as treatment for depressive disorders, many wonder if plant medicines such as psilocybin can be effective for mothers with postpartum depression.
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Postpartum depression is depression experienced by many women after giving birth. Symptoms of postpartum depression include frequent crying, irritability and fatigue, as well as feelings of guilt, anxiety and the inability for the new mother to care for her baby or herself. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may appear within a week of delivery or gradually, even up to a year after birth. Symptoms can last several months, although treatment with psychotherapy or antidepressants is often very effective, according to information from the Cleveland Clinic. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that about one in eight women who have given birth recently experience symptoms of postpartum depression. New fathers are also susceptible, with a pilot project assessing the behavior of new dads in Georgia showing that 10% of fathers experienced depressive symptoms following the birth of a baby.
Previous research has shown that psychedelics such as psilocybin can have profoundly positive effects on people with depression. A study published in 2020 in the journal JAMA in 2020 by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center found that psilocybin can be an effective and quick-acting treatment for major depressive disorder. Psilocybin was also shown to be safer than traditional antidepressant medications, which can produce side effects including suicidal ideation, weight gain and a decreased sex drive. Psilocybin was also shown to be effective after only one or two treatment sessions. Separate research published in 2016 determined that psilocybin treatment produced substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.
Julie Ugleholdt of Denmark experienced symptoms of postpartum depression after giving birth to her daughter Charlie. The challenges she faced were significant, including a difficult, protracted labor that threatened the life of her unborn baby and the disruption Ugleholdt experienced transitioning from a life focused on career into the role of a caretaker responsible for a new, tiny life. In addition to the change in lifestyle and responsibilities, Charlie had colic and cried about five hours each day. As time went on, Ugleholdt found it more and more difficult getting used to her new role as a mother.
“I just felt wrong. I didn’t have the feelings I thought I would have, and I couldn’t give myself emotionally to my daughter,” she said in an article translated by Vice. “I had expected that I’d be completely enamored with her and want to show her off to everyone, but the reality was that I didn’t.”
After spending days in bed crying and experiencing suicidal thoughts, Ugleholdt decided to try taking psilocybin mushrooms to treat her symptoms of postpartum depression. The effect on her mental health was dramatic.
“My husband was the one who dosed them for me and mixed them in with my coffee, because at this point, I wasn’t really capable of doing much myself,” she remembered. “I definitely noticed a change when I started drinking them—that I started to feel warm and happy inside. That very first day, I sang songs for my daughter. We played together and she smiled at me. I was overjoyed that I was even able to take the experience in.”
A recent review of available research noted that when psilocybin was studied in patients with major depressive disorder, it prompted a sense of “reconnection” in participants. The authors of the study wrote that this effect in patients with postpartum depression, “by fostering a sense of 'reconnection' for the mother, may allow for improved mood and maternal sensitivity towards the infant, which can positively impact maternal role gratification and the mother-infant relationship.” In their conclusion, the researchers wrote that psychedelic-assisted therapy for parents with postpartum depression “may have a positive effect on the mother-infant dyad and warrants further examination.”
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