Synthetic Oxytocin Exposure May Increase Risk Of Postpartum Depression

Frustrated Mother Suffering From Post Natal Depression

Oxytocin has long been hailed as the love hormone – a feel-good  chemical released when we hug or kiss a loved one. It plays a significant role in bonding, and is released in larger amounts during sex, birth or breastfeeding [1]. Recent studies have lauded the possibilities for oxytocin to be used in treating depression and anxiety. However, research recently published in the Journal ‘Depression and Anxiety’ has revealed an interesting paradox.

The study looked at the administration of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) and post-natal depression and anxiety within the post-partum year, and it held some concerning results.

Synthetic Oxytocin has been a regular in maternity wards for decades now. It is commonly administered “to induce/advance labor and prevent post-delivery hemorrhages [2].” Oxytocin injections are also given to help the mother expel the placenta quickly.

But according to this new research, the practice is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety within the post-partum year. It’s not a little risk either. The American Psychiatric Association reported that:

“The researchers found that exposure to peripartum oxytocin increased the risk of depression or anxiety in the first postpartum year by about 32% in women with no history of pre-pregnancy depression or anxiety. In women with a history of pre-pregnancy depressive or anxiety disorder, exposure to the peripartum oxytocin increased the risk of depression or anxiety by 36%.”

This came from a large sample – 9,684 deliveries with peripartum synthetic oxytocin exposure, and 37,048 deliveries without it. Peripartum exposure, for the sake of the research, was defined as ‘within two weeks of delivery date [3].’ While the researchers noted that the effect of synthetic oxytocin exposure on endogenous oxytocin levels remained unclear, they did state that “our data support the idea that synthetic oxytocin administration during labor has a negative impact on postpartum mood [2].”

The findings of the study were actually contrary to the hypothesis the researchers began with. Dr. Deligiannidis, the lead researcher and director of Women’s Behavioral Health at Northwell Health’s Zucker Hillside Hospital remarked that [4]:

“Although oxytocin is a hormone naturally found in the body during childbirth, our study found, contrary to what we expected, that exposure to synthetic oxytocin – a common treatment administered during or after labor – was associated with an increase in risk for the development of postpartum depression and anxiety. Since synthetic oxytocin is such an important and commonly used medicine for peripartum women, further research should examine dose, duration, timing and reason for treatment so that we can better identify which women may be at risk for developing postpartum depression and anxiety. Better identification of factors that place women at risk could significantly decrease the number of women who suffer with postpartum depression.”

Given the prevalence of depression and anxiety on the general population, this research should raise a red flag. While the practice of delivering the injection during labor is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, this research reinforces the importance of screening, support and awareness on our post-natal patients, friends and loved ones.



[1] Staff Writer, (2016), “What is Oxytocin,” Psychology Today, retrieved 7 February 2017

[2] Staff Writer (2017), “Exposure to Synthetic Oxytocin May Increase Risk of Postpartum Depression, Anxiety,” American Psychiatric Association, retrieved 7 February 2017

[3] Kroll-Desrosiers, A, Nephew, B, Babb, J, Guilarte-Walker, Y, Moore-Simas, T, Deligiannidis, K (2017), “Association of peripartum synthetic oxytocin administration and depressive anxiety disorders within the first postpartum year, Journal Depression and Anxiety, retrieved  7 February 2017

[4] Ball, H (2017), “Feinstein Institute Study Finds Medication Commonly Used During Labor Associated with Postpartym Depression,” Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, retrieved 7 February 2017

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