Could a micronutrient drink improve mental health in pregnant women?

20 July 2017
Pregnant woman cutting an apple

A world-leading clinical trial will explore whether nutritional supplementation could improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnant women.

The University of Canterbury trial is recruiting pregnant women to see whether a special cocktail of vitamins and minerals improves their mental health.

The trial will be overseen by psychology PhD student Hayley Bradley who says antenatal depression and anxiety are amongst the leading causes of maternal morbidity and mortality.

“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,” Ms Bradley says.

She says nutritional demands increase during childbirth which may potentially result in certain dietary deficiencies that are linked with postnatal depression

“Evidence over the past decade has shown 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,” Ms Bradley says.

The Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group is recruiting for the study (until December 2018) to see whether a multi-vitamin and mineral (micronutrient) treatment can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in pregnant women.

The trial will be a double blind, randomised, controlled trial, and 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. 

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,” Ms Bradley says.

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 could result in a fundamental shift in how we conceptualise and treat mental disorders during pregnancy,” Ms Bradley 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.”

Find out more about the study exploring whether nutritional supplementation can improve mental health in pregnancy here.