You wouldn’t let your toddler play in a busy street. That’s just good common sense that you already know. However, if you’re in a more precarious position—perhaps you’re pregnant and depressed—you need expert guidance you can trust to keep you healthy and your baby out of danger. You should be able to turn to the medical profession to steer you in a safe direction, right?
In your highly vulnerable state, the pharmaceutical and medical industries have assured you that there’s almost no risk in taking medications like antidepressants during pregnancy. But are they using common sense?
The British Medical Journal released a study last week that examined 1.6 million births from 1996 to 2007 and found that women who take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants late in their pregnancy are twice as likely to give birth to a baby with pulmonary hypertension.
This condition occurs when a newborn has high blood pressure in its lung and the lungs do not adequately adapt to breathing on their own after birth. It’s a dangerous disorder that can lead to organ failure, brain damage or even death. About one in every 1,000 babies is born with the condition.
Yet some experts are discounting the severity of the study’s findings. “You’re doubling the risk of extremely low risk to again, an extremely low risk,” Dr. Marjorie Greenfield, division director of obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, told ABC News.*
Yes, and maybe there’s an extremely low risk that a driver won’t swerve his car in time to avoid hitting your kid.
But there’s a lot at stake in maintaining the “good name” of antidepressants. SSRIs hit the market in the 1980s and ’90s and gave hope to many people battling depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Medications like Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline) and Lexapro (escitalopram) offered a safer, more effective answer to their side effect-plagued predecessors.
Today, antidepressants are the third most widely prescribed drugs in America, with 1 in 10 Americans taking some form of the drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This translates into $20 billion in annual profits for pharmaceutical giants like Eli Lilly, Pfizer and Forest Pharmaceutical.
SSRIs work by targeting serotonin, a neurotransmitter that sends messages in the brain. The theory is that a serotonin imbalance will lead to mood variations and depression—or, conversely—that depression will cause a serotonin imbalance. It’s not known which comes first or even exactly how SSRIs work in the brain, other than that they seem to wash away the blues.
People who take SSRIs are subject to side effects that range from restlessness to committing suicide. And while depression during pregnancy can also be dangerous, is the risk worth the benefit? This isn’t the first time that question has been asked. To wit:
- In 2009, a Dutch study of 39,000 children found that those who had mothers who took antidepressants were more likely to have respiratory and digestive problems.
- A Denmark study released in 2010 followed 82,000 babies and discovered that those whose mothers took antidepressants had slight delays in reaching developmental milestones like sitting up and walking.
- A small Kaiser Permanente study in 2011 suggested a link between a pregnant woman’s SSRI intake and her baby’s chance of developing autism.
In addition, it is well known that newborns of mothers who take antidepressants like SSRIs are often jittery and cry excessively during their first month of life, likely due to the fact that stopping SSRIs abruptly causes irritability and is highly discouraged due to these withdrawal symptoms. But when you leave the womb laced with SSRIs, you don’t have much of a choice.
Yet antidepressants are still widely prescribed to pregnant women who are battling mood swings, highs and lows and emotion turmoil during their babies’ development. Are the manufacturers of these medications and physicians who dole them out trying to lead you through a healthy pregnancy and offering a variety of feasible treatment options…or are they sending your unborn baby out into oncoming traffic? Where’s the common sense there?