Can Sleep-Breathing Problems Cause Postpartum Depression?

A recent study recommended that all new mothers be screened for postpartum depression. This is not a bad idea, since so many women are likely to undergo some form of depression in the postpartum period. Even my wife Kathy experienced it after our first son, Jonas, was born.

There are many good explanations for postpartum depression, but here’s a simple, but unexpected reason that has to do with progesterone.

As women progress through pregnancy, they all gain weight. Significant weight gain can push most people into developing obstructive sleep apnea. Progesterone has been shown to be protective in obstructive sleep apnea by acting as an upper airway muscle stimulant—it increases muscle tone in the genioglossus muscle (the tongue, the largest upper airway dilator). During pregnancy, progesterone elevates significantly, but just after delivery, it drops, but you still have all that weight.

Modern humans are susceptible to breathing problems at night due to the fact that we can talk. As a result, our upper airways are unprotected. Add to this the documented shrinking of our jaws and dental crowding from a radical change in our diets, you end up with a tongue that takes up relatively too much space. Bottle-feeding, which is another modern Western invention, is also thought to cause malocclusion and dental crowding.

Sleep-breathing problems can be a major cause of postpartum depression. Biochemical changes in the brain due to sleep-breathing problems can look identical to classic depression findings. This is also a reason why many women say that they never sleep the same again after the last pregnancy. The good news is that with a proper examination and appropriate treatment, many women can begin to sleep better after having a child. In addition to screening for depression, you should also screen for sleep-breathing problems.

For the women reading this, has your sleep quality never been the same since your last pregnancy?

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