New Alive & Thrive technical brief examines the role nutrition plays in predicting and preventing maternal depression

Maternal Depression: The role of nutrition in prevention and treatment
Maternal Depression: The role of nutrition in prevention and treatment

Research continues to shed light on the role nutrition plays in maternal depression. A new Alive & Thrive technical brief, prepared by Dr. Pamela Surkan and Farah Behbehani, presents what we know about the role of nutrition in predicting and preventing maternal depression.

Understanding the role is critical: Maternal depression is associated with increased maternal morbidity, poorer self-care, and it has significant harmful consequences for infants and children. For example, one meta-analytic study focused on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) found an increased risk of approximately 50 percent for underweight and 40 percent for stunting in children with mothers who had high levels of depression.

“We know nutrition is important for brain development and plays a role in the pathophysiology of depression” the authors stated. “But we still have a lot to learn about the specific links between nutrition and maternal depression and this brief also presents areas for future research and action.”

The need for further research in LMICs is particularly great. While studies in high-income countries indicate about 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of those who have given birth experience some degree of depression, the prevalence for women living in LMICs has only recently become the subject of research and is estimated to be even higher.

The brief also discusses interventions and platforms to address maternal depression within healthcare systems. A variety of strategies are being implemented to address maternal depression, including psychological therapies, community-based support, and poverty alleviation. Approaches using supervised non-specialist health and community workers in LMICs have shown promising results and could potentially offer platforms for integrating nutrition interventions. Future research should also be conducted to better understand, and potentially harness, ways in which nutritional interventions could be used.

The brief also summarizes research on nutrition and maternal depression. Overall, studies provide strong evidence that nutrition affects maternal depression. But research on the impacts of preventive measures and the role of specific nutrients has been inconclusive.

“We need to understand better the impact of nutrition in maternal depression, and the potential of interventions to address deficiencies,” Dr. Surkan said. “Certain nutrients could play a role in the development of maternal depression but only more research will tell us the extent of their impact.”