Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in postpartum depression

Biol Res Nurs. 2007 Jan;8(3):210-22. doi: 10.1177/1099800406294598.


Postpartum depression (PPD) affects at least 10% to 15% of postpartum women, including more than 600,000 American mothers in 2003 alone. Dramatic changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system in the transition from pregnancy to postpartum coupled with research on the psychobiology of depression provided the foundation for this study. The purpose of this study was to compare the reactivity and regulation of the HPA axis components, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, in depressed and nondepressed postpartum women. A comparative, longitudinal study design was used with 22 normal, healthy, nondepressed pregnant women. Physiologic and postpartum depression data were collected at 6 and 12 weeks postpartum at a university clinical research center. Maximal treadmill exercise stimulated plasma ACTH and serum cortisol levels which were measured before, during, and after 20 min of exercise. Postpartum depression was measured with the Postpartum Depression Screening Scale. Lag within-subject ACTH levels predicting cortisol regression slopes were significantly different between the depressed and nondepressed groups at both 6 and 12 weeks. The depressed group showed no relationship between their ACTH and cortisol levels, with higher ACTH and lower cortisol levels when compared with the nondepressed group. The expected regulated relationship with cortisol levels rising in response to rising ACTH levels was found in the non-depressed group. These findings indicate that the HPA axis was dysregulated in the depressed group, but regulated in the nondepressed group at 6 and 12 weeks postpartum. This pattern of higher ACTH levels to stimulate less cortisol is similar to patterns found in women with early life stresses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Clinical Nursing Research
  • Depression, Postpartum / diagnosis
  • Depression, Postpartum / epidemiology
  • Depression, Postpartum / etiology*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / complications*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / metabolism
  • Endocrine System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Exercise Test
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System*
  • Immunoassay
  • Life Change Events
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System*
  • Postpartum Period / physiology
  • Postpartum Period / psychology
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Regression Analysis
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Washington / epidemiology


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone