For pregnant women today, maintaining mental health is becoming an increasingly important concern. Over the last two decades, there has been a great deal of research on depression and anxiety in pregnant women, which has provided doctors and patients with a wealth of valuable information about the importance of supporting the mental health of pregnant mothers. According to studies conducted in 2006 and 2010, between 10 percent and 49 percent of all women experience depression during their pregnancy. Moreover, women who are depressed are more likely to deliver prematurely, and their babies are more likely to have low birthweight.
At the same time, there are questions within the medical field about whether or not standard drug treatments for anxiety and depression are safe for pregnant mothers. A recently published study from 2017 suggests that the jury is still out. Researchers suggest that doctors make the decision about medications for pregnant mothers on a case-by-case basis. That may not be comforting for mothers who are worried about maintaining mental health throughout a pregnancy but don’t want to risk the health of the baby. Luckily, there are scientific studies that show that there are other, guaranteed-safe strategies for treating depression that are effective for pregnant mothers. If you’re looking for alternative ways to keep prenatal depression at bay, you may want to consider massage therapy or yoga.
The Real-World Research Linking Massage Therapy and Prenatal Depression Prevention
There is clear, research-backed evidence that massage therapy and yoga during the prenatal period can reduce prenatal depression and improve neonatal outcomes. Consider a study published in 2012 by a group of researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine. They recruited a population of 84 women with prenatal depression and assigned them to one of three groups: a control group, a massage group, and a yoga group. The control group received standard prenatal care for the 12-week study period. The massage group received twice-weekly 20-minute massage sessions. The yoga group participated in twice-weekly 20-minute yoga sessions.
For pregnant women who are looking for alternative methods of treating prenatal depression, the results were quite promising. Both the massage group and the yoga group reported larger decreases than the control group on the scales measuring depression, anxiety, leg pain, and back pain. In addition, when the patients gave birth, the average gestational age and the average birthweight were both higher for the babies whose mothers were in the yoga group and the massage group than for the babies whose mothers were in the control group. Based on these findings, the authors were able to conclude that prenatal massage and yoga can have positive effects on symptoms of prenatal depression and neonatal outcomes.
Understanding the Connection Between Cortisol, Prenatal Depression, and Neonatal Outcomes
The above-described study about the benefits of massage and yoga for women with prenatal depression is one of the most recent and convincing — but it is not the only one. For years, research in the field has suggested that massage therapy can reduce symptoms of prenatal depression and improve neonatal outcomes. In 2011, one of the researchers at the University of Miami set out to find out why. Specifically, she was looking for a scientific reason to explain the health benefits of prenatal massage.
Based on a comprehensive evaluation of previous literature, the researcher theorized that the positive health benefits are mediated through increased vagal activity. To put it simply, the pressure of a massage stimulates cell receptors that regulate vagal fibers. These fibers, in turn, help to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the production of cortisol. Cortisol — also known as the “stress hormone” — is closely associated with symptoms of depression, and studies have shown that cortisol levels decline in pregnant mothers who receive prenatal massage, thereby lessening their symptoms. At the same time, lower cortisol activities can help to reduce excessive fetal activity, which reduces the risk of premature delivery. Thus, according to this evidence-based theory, the link between vagal activity and lower levels of cortisol explains the benefits of massage for pregnant mothers.
Strategies for Expecting Mothers
The research findings are clear: there is real-world evidence proving that prenatal massage and yoga can have benefits for pregnant mothers who have prenatal depression, and there is a clear biological explanation for these outcomes. But how do you apply these scientific findings in your own life?
If you are expecting a baby, you should give prenatal massage a try! Even if you are not suffering from prenatal depression, prenatal massage can help support your physical and mental health and the health of your baby.
A yoga class is also a great option, but as your belly grows, it may start to become difficult to maneuver your body into the right positions — and it can be even harder if you’ve never tried yoga before. One option you might want to consider is Thai massage, which is essentially a gentle yoga session in which the therapist guides your body through a series of poses.
Atlanta Chiropractic and Massage offers a wide range of massage modalities, including prenatal massage and Thai massage. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!