UC study aims to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnant women

19 July 2017

A world-leading new University of Canterbury research trial aims to help pregnant women improve symptoms of anxiety and antenatal depression through better nutrition.

  • Hayley Bradley

    Psychology PhD student Hayley Bradley is recruiting pregnant women for a new clinical trial at the University of Canterbury’s Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group.

Psychology PhD student Hayley Bradley is recruiting pregnant women for a new clinical trial at the University of Canterbury’s Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group.

Antenatal depression and anxiety are serious mental health problems and are amongst the leading causes of maternal morbidity and mortality worldwide, according to Hayley.

“New Zealand has one of the highest rates of depression and anxiety among pregnant women in the developed world, between 12 to 25 per cent. It is well known that depression and anxiety during pregnancy can have devastating short and long-term consequences – not only for the pregnant woman but also for her baby and the wider family,” she says. 

Current treatments include antidepressant medication or psychotherapy. However, given the risks associated with in-utero exposure to antidepressants and barriers such as access and cost associated with psychotherapy, many pregnant women remain untreated.

“Alternative interventions are therefore desperately needed. We want to see if vitamins and minerals can help pregnant women deal better with low mood and anxiety,” Hayley says.

One emerging treatment option is nutritional supplementation. Nutritional demands are increased during childbirth which may potentially result in nutritional deficiencies.  There is also emerging evidence that poor diet and nutritional deficiency may be correlated with postnatal depression. It would therefore make sense to increase the nutritional intake of pregnant women which can be done by supplementing their diets.

“Evidence has accumulated over the last decade showing large, beneficial effects of broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral (micronutrient) interventions for various mental health problems suggesting that micronutrient interventions could be a promising way forward,” she says.

The Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group is recruiting for a study (until December 2018) to see whether a multi-vitamin and mineral (micronutrient) treatment can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnant women. In this double blind, randomised, controlled trial, women between 12 and 20 weeks pregnant will take either the micronutrient formula or an iodine supplement for 12 weeks. After 12 weeks, all women will have the opportunity to take the micronutrient formula for a further 12 weeks or until their baby arrives.

Participants and their babies will be followed up postnatally to ensure wellbeing and see if the nutrients can also prevent postnatal depression and anxiety and improve developmental outcomes for infants. 

Hayley says the clinical trial is cutting edge, world-leading research.

Throughout the study, participants will be required to complete various assessments and provide two blood samples to examine any changes in DNA activity, nutrient levels and inflammatory biomarkers that may predict a treatment response. Participants will also have the option to undergo a short EEG to see the impact nutrients have on brain activity.

“This study is open to pregnant women across the Canterbury region and focuses on improving outcomes for those suffering from low mood and anxiety. Should the micronutrients prove beneficial, then pregnant women will have an alternative treatment option available, especially taking into consideration the positive effects micronutrients have for other psychiatric symptoms.”

The study may also provide evidence for better health, wellbeing and development of infants exposed to nutrients in-utero.

“When this research is interpreted alongside the large body of literature showing the importance of nutrients and nutrition for mental health, there is potential that a nutrient approach results in a fundamental shift in how we conceptualise and treat mental disorders during pregnancy,” Hayley says.

“We hope that the evidence from this study will inform not only practitioners and policy makers of the safety and efficacy of a nutritional treatment option for antenatal depression and anxiety but will also allow pregnant women to make informed decisions about their choice of treatment.”

Supervisor of the clinical study and founder of the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group, UC Psychology Professor Julia Rucklidge recently featured in the New Zealand Listener and TVNZ’s Sunday programme discussing her research and the link between nutrition and mental health. Prof Rucklidge has been running clinical trials investigating the role of broad-spectrum micronutrients in the expression of mental illness over the past 10 years.

The research team also involves an experienced psychiatrist, midwife, and biologist as well as psychologists and geneticists from the both the University of Canterbury and the University of Otago.

Pregnant women interested in the study can register their interest and find more information about the pregnancy study at www.bit.ly/pregnancy-study or contact the study’s coordinator Hayley Bradley by phone: (03) 364 2987 ext. 7705 or email: hayley.bradley@pg.canterbury.ac.nz.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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