Mental health browsing by tag


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Pregnancy

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted, recurring thoughts or fears (obsessions) and the behaviors a person develops to try and stop the fears from coming true (compulsions). People with OCD get into cycles of obsessive thoughts which are followed by compulsive behaviors. The compulsive behavior brings temporary relief from the anxiety, but only temporary. Soon the obsession and its accompanying anxiety return, and the cycle starts all over.

For example, a person might repeatedly wash his or her hands, clean the house, or check things such as locks or light switches. Sufferers are aware that there is no need for the behavior, but they are unable to stop themselves from repeating it. OCD can be very time-consuming and cause more anxiety or stress, rather than reliving it. In severe cases, it can stop people from leading normal lives.

Pregnancy and OCD have a relationship that is not yet well understood. Sometimes, a woman experiences OCD for the first time during pregnancy or following childbirth. Also, some women who have existing OCD may find that their symptoms worsen during pregnancy or in the weeks or months following childbirth. Still other women find that their symptoms improve during pregnancy.

OCD and depression are commonly found together; new mothers with OCD may be more likely to experience postpartum depression, or they may experience postpartum depression that is more severe. Among the general population, OCD is thought to affect about one in 100 people; about twice that number are affected during pregnancy and after childbirth. 

How Do You Know if You Have OCD?

Worries and fears are normal and common among pregnant women or new mothers. Such thoughts and fears usually do not signal OCD. However, OCD could be a concern if the anxiety is overwhelming or if it leads to needless and repetitive behaviors.

Fears that the baby is in some kind of danger are common among pregnant women with OCD. A woman may be afraid that she will somehow harm her baby herself, and therefore develop compulsions to try to protect her baby. For example, she may stop eating certain foods she believes may harm her unborn baby, even if her doctor says they are safe to eat. Or, after the baby is born, the new mother may compulsively check on the sleeping baby. She may constantly clean areas the baby has contact with, or she may even avoid spending time with her baby.

Why Is OCD More Common During Pregnancy?

The reason for this is not fully understood. Often, the reason for OCD cannot be pinpointed, even when pregnancy is not a factor. In some cases, it could be that new mothers feel the added pressure of the extra responsibility having a new baby places on them. Or, it may be that a mother suppresses negative emotions because she is “supposed” to be experiencing a joyful event. It is also possible that changes in brain chemistry play a role, or that hormonal fluctuations have an effect.

If you think you may have OCD, ask your doctor about it. He or she can refer you to someone who is trained to help people with OCD. Talking to someone who understands what you are going through is usually very helpful.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Is Your Brain Influencing Your Weight

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Losing weight when you are obese is a serious challenge, likewise gaining weight when you are anorexic.  This difficulty stems from the habits we create for ourselves and consequently, the conditioning our brains receive.  When you need to overcome an eating disorder, it’s not just a matter of willpower, but studies suggest it’s also a matter of remapping brain circuitry, and that’s no easy task.

As of 2008, one in every 200 US women suffered from Anorexia and more than two out of every three were overweight or obese.  That means millions of American women are struggling with their weight every day.  For this reason, scientists in the Developmental Brain Research Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine wanted to find out how eating behavior was related to dopamine pathways, similar to those found in drug addictions.  They compared the brain activity of 63 women who were either anorexic or obese to those of normal weight and found that “reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women and desensitized in obese women.”  Basically, this means that anorexic women get much more pleasure and satisfaction out of a sweet treat than someone who is obese.  As with drug tolerances, it takes much more of those foods we love to satisfy the cravings of someone who is overweight.  Anorexic women on the other hand, might feel like they’ve had too much, a sugar overdose so to speak, after partaking in a single serving.  More research needs to be done to determine the precise role of the brain’s reward system when it comes to eating disorders, but so far, it seems that it definitely has some part in regulating food intake.

Although the involvement of your brain circuitry might make your battle with weight loss or weight gain more intimidating, all is not lost.  Recent brain research shows that with gradual habit changes and regular conditioning, we can change the neural pathways in our brains.  As with any addiction, kicking the habit isn’t easy, but once you train your brain, your new, healthier habits should help keep you on track.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


Fattening Foods Give Women Yet another Reason to Cut Down

Monday, June 4th, 2012

As if we need another reason to feel guilty about those fattening foods we love so much, women now need to be concerned about how those kinds of foods can impact their mental health.  While we already know that fattening foods can cause obesity, increase the risk of heart disease, and even bring on diabetes, studies now indicate the type of fat found in those foods also slows our cognitive functions.

Over 6000 women participated in the Women’s Health Study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Researchers overseeing the study took surveys about the types of foods they ate and with what frequency before and after the study.  They also performed cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study, after two years, and then again when the study was finished after four total years.   What they found was that certain foods impacted how fast cognitive decline happened.  Olivia Okereke, a doctor from the Department of Psychiatry reported that, “when looking at changes in cognitive function, what we found is that the total amount of fat intake did not really matter, but the type of fat did.”  Their results showed that women who ate a lot of foods high in saturated fats had a cognitive decline much more significant than those who ate foods high in monounsaturated fats or who had less fat in their diet altogether.  In other words, those who ate foods with animal fats, like red meat, dairy products, and butter, were less likely to maintain a sharp mind compared to those who ate plant fats, like avocado and olive oil.

Although this study is revealing, you won’t find me giving up my favorite ice cream or opting out of that nice juicy steak once in a while, and that’s ok.  By simply reducing how often we eat foods like this or replacing their saturated fat ingredients with monounsaturated fats, we can do a lot to keep our minds sharp and our bodies fit.  I guess it’s finally time to try that olive oil ice cream I’ve been hearing about!


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.