women’s health

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Opinion: Why Gut A Program That Truly Helps New Mothers?

pumicehead/flickr

pumicehead/flickr

By Claudia M. Gold, M.D.
Guest Contributor

As any parent knows, caring for an infant is a 24/7 job. Contrary to the idealized “myth of motherhood” — which usually involves a quick, seamless return to pre-pregnancy weight, emotions and all-around functionality — there is no “schedule” to be had. Life has officially turned upside down.

All kinds of research suggest that new moms need help.

But in our culture today, where extended family may be far away, where spouses often return to full-time work almost immediately after the birth, mothers may be very much alone in the task of caring for a new baby. Mother-baby groups have a critical role to play in filling that void.

I have seen these groups in action working as a consultant to the William James College Freedman Center. When mothers feel supported and listened to, extraordinary thing happen: they share experiences not only about the lack of sleep and ability to take a shower, but also fears, anxieties, self-doubt, sadness and even depression. By the end of these groups, many mothers developed powerful, sustaining bonds with each other and interact with their babies with new confidence and joy.

A particularly innovative Massachusetts-based program for mothers is now at risk.

Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project for Moms is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Psychiatry Access Project and MotherWoman, an organization that offers a network of groups as well as training for group leaders and seeks to make these groups available to mothers all across the state.

The program has its roots in a special legislative committee chaired by Representative Ellen Story. While at first the focus of the commission was to implement statewide screening for postpartum depression, it quickly became clear that such a step was meaningless without first having resources in place to help mothers identified by the screening.

That is where MCPAP for Moms comes in to play. In collaboration with William James INTERFACE referral service, when a mother is struggling, she can find support that is available close to home and right away. When a new mother feels alone, scared and overwhelmed, a three-month- or even a three-week-wait is unacceptable. She needs help today.

MCPAP for Moms offers a unique constellation of services: it offers toolkits and training for primary care clinicians — obstetricians, pediatricians and family practitioners, many of whom now do not know where to turn when they see a mom struggling with postpartum depression and/or anxiety. Second, it helps mothers connect with help — individual clinicians experienced in treating perinatal emotional complications as well as groups — right away. And last, MotherWoman has a growing network of support groups and trainings for group leaders so that the service can extend throughout the state. So, it’s a whole safety net that involves many things.

“I was so overwhelmed and stressed as a new mom that I didn’t know what to do and felt like a failure. Without MCPAP for Moms I don’t know where I would be today,” said one postpartum mom, Amanda Martin. “I am so grateful for them helping me get the help I needed to feel better for me and for my family.” Continue reading

Why Do So Many Women Have Anxiety Disorders? A Hormone Hypothesis

(Stuart Anthony/Flickr)

(Stuart Anthony/Flickr)

Why do so many women suffer from anxiety? Is it something inherent in being female, are we more attuned to our moods? Or is that breath-clenching feeling of impending doom hard-wired?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime. (Obviously, men are not immune: taken together, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions — they affect about 40 million men and women age 18 and older, or about 18 percent of the U.S. population.)

Mohammed Milad is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. He studies the complex interplay of gender, fear and anxiety. More specifically, he’s looking at how hormones, notably estrogen, might play a role in the fear response and our ability to extinguish fear and anxiety.

I spoke with him about his work. Here, edited, is some of our conversation:

RZ: OK, can you just clearly explain the difference between fear and anxiety? Sometimes it’s a fine line indeed.

MM: I was thinking about taking my kids camping over the summer, and I was reading about bears and potential bear encounters, and considerations for taking cover and putting your food this distance away from your camping site, etc. Anxiety is when you’re camping and you have that heightened awareness — hyper-vigilance  — that’s anxiety, it’s sustained, it’s continuous, but it’s not at the point where it makes you run or look for cover. Fear is when you see the bear; fear is intense, it’s immediate, it’s right there in front of you.

RZ: Thanks for that. But I’m curious, how did you start studying how men and women are different when it comes to fear and anxiety?

MM: When I was in grad school we used to host kids from middle and elementary school…showing our lab to them, showing them the rats, and one kid, maybe 10, 12 years old, asked, are they male or female rats and I said they’re all male rats, and he asked, why, what about the female rats? And I didn’t know the answer, so I went to my mentor and asked, why don’t we study the females? And the answer, simply put, was they’re complicated.

RZ: So the female rats were just too complicated. I get that. But considering far more women than men suffer from anxiety disorders, the fact that you were studying only male rats wasn’t such a great approach, was it?

MM: No, so I think that’s not an acceptable answer now.

RZ: In your experiments on rats and humans, you and your team use Pavlovian conditioning, as in Pavlov’s dogs, who were famously conditioned into drooling every time they heard a bell because they associated that sound with food. So, in these studies you repeatedly showed a blue light on a screen to men and women who would then receive a mild shock, until they came to expect — and fear — a shock every time they saw the blue light. Then, you stopped giving shocks when the blue light came on, to teach the subjects not to fear it. That’s “fear extinction.” And the next day, the men and women were tested to see if they still had a fear response to the blue light.

The results in these studies were all over the place, but most of the variance in fear response was among women in the experiment, right? The men were much more consistent. Why might that be?

MM: That’s what got me into beginning to think about hormones, because what could account for that other than maybe some women that we’re bringing in to the lab were at a particular phase of their menstrual cycle? And when we did that study we found that women who came in when their estrogen is elevated, they had their [fear] extinction capacity much better, in other words, they were able to control their fear, or express much less fear, compared to the women that came in in the early phase of their cycle… when they had low estrogen.

RZ: So just to be clear, high estrogen was linked to better control of fear, and low estrogen meant more potent and longer lasting fear?

MM: Right. Continue reading

Sexual Reality: The Checkup Podcast Debunks A Few Myths (Like Size And Age Matter…)

Possibly our juiciest segment yet, the latest installment of The Checkup podcast, our joint venture with Slate, takes on some sexual myths and offers a bit of reality.

We bring you surprises about penis size, stories of great sex over 70 and new insights on how both men and women are lied to about their sexuality. As we have in past segments, Carey and I offer our fresh take on research-based news that could brighten up your life below the waist. Check it out here:

And in case you missed our last episode, “Grossology” (including a look at the first stool bank in the nation and research on the benefits of “bacterial schmears” from a mother’s birth canal) — you can listen now.

And if you want to hear earlier episodes: “Scary Food Stories” includes the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offers sobering news to kale devotees. And “On The Brain” includes fascinating research on dyslexia, depression and how playing music may affect our minds.

Make sure to tune in next time, when we present: “High Anxiety,” an episode on the (arguably) most prevalent of mental health disorders.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues. If you listen and like it, won’t you please let our podcasting partner, Slate, know? You can email them at podcasts@slate.com.

Medicated (And Unmedicated) Women Are Talking

By Alicair Peltonen
Guest Contributor

I think a crucial step in decreasing the stigma surrounding mental illness is talking about it openly. And it seems readers want to talk.

My post, “The Medicated Woman: A Pill To Feel Better, Not Squelch Feelings,” on mental health and medication, was shared on Facebook more than 15,000 times and now has over 200 comments, so I thought it was worth a follow-up.

One thing readers wanted to discuss is the safety of antidepressants during pregnancy, a complicated topic which has been covered here and here on CommonHealth. Safety studies are mixed in many cases so women should consult their doctors. Here’s what it says on the Mayo Clinic website:

A decision to use antidepressants during pregnancy is based on the balance between risks and benefits. Overall, the risk of birth defects and other problems for babies of mothers who take antidepressants during pregnancy is very low. Still, few medications have been proved safe without question during pregnancy, and some types of antidepressants have been associated with health problems in babies.

Other comments underscored that stigma still exists but may be slowly diminishing.

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

Jackie wrote: “It took me until I was in my 50’s to accept that medication wasn’t the ‘weak”‘ way. I now see how much I lost and am living through a tremendously stressful life without those urges to accelerate into other cars or cement walls.”

“It’s in our family, but I was the first to seek help, and was probably the worst off. It was a secret that my grandfather had committed suicide,” wrote lilycarol.

And here’s a comment from helentroy4: “My mother was much like me. But to her dying day she never acknowledged that her behaviors were anything but ‘perfect mothering.’ I think had she been able to take advantage of this medication (or others of its kind), she would have been able to have the calming of her heart and soul that I have been blessed to have.”

There were many who suggested that lifestyle changes, including more exercise and sleep, meditation or yoga might be safer and more beneficial than medication. Continue reading

The Medicated Woman: A Pill To Feel Better, Not Squelch Emotions

By Alicair Peltonen
Guest Contributor

I am a medicated woman. I take 50mg of Sertraline (the generic form of Zoloft) a day. I don’t take it to be more tolerable to my husband. I don’t take it because I’m embarrassed by my emotions. And I definitely don’t take it to quietly fit into a polite societal mold. I take an anti-depressant every day to quell my anxiety simply because it feels better. I feel better.

I grew up in a talk therapy household. My father began group therapy for anger management issues in 1984, when I was 10, breaking a cycle of rage and avoidance that tends to swallow people whole, particularly men. He would come home feeling calmer and then he would implore my sister and me to explore our feelings and talk about our problems. Begrudgingly at times, I learned to think analytically. And thankfully, I learned that asking for help is not only acceptable, it’s downright healthy.

I started seeing therapists here and there in my 20s and then regularly several months after my first daughter was born. Medication had never been suggested by any of my previous therapists but this time was different. I couldn’t shake the feelings of inadequacy, the certainty that my daughter didn’t like me and I was just a glorified dairy cow. Post-partum depression is a hell of a thing.

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

When my therapist suggested I see a psychiatrist to discuss the possibility of medication, I went home and cried for an hour. I felt ashamed, defeated, embarrassed, weak. Even though I had seen medication transform my father from a man who growled and dragged to one who laughed and hugged, it still stung to feel like I couldn’t pull myself together.

But, remembering my father’s bravery, I thought I should at least give it a try. If I didn’t like it, I could always stop taking it. The first pill was swallowed through tears. And each successive pill went down easier. For a full year, I could go days without yelling or wanting to break things and entire weeks without crying. And I felt better.

After a year, I decided to go off the medication. Things had been much better and I wanted to see if I could “go back to normal.” And things did go back to normal. But it turns out my normal wasn’t very comfortable.

There have been many discussions and articles recently asking if modern psychiatry is over-medicating women. A recent op-ed in the New York Times by psychiatrist Julie Holland suggested that many of the symptoms for which women are treated with antidepressants are natural and healthy. “We have been taught to apologize for our tears,” she writes, “to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.”

Here’s the thing, though. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears because you stubbed your toe and it’s the straw that broke the stress-camel’s back doesn’t feel good. Continue reading

What To Expect When You’re Birthing At Home: A Hospital C-Section (Possibly)

Screen shot 2015-03-20 at 9.07.11 AM

By Ananda Lowe
Guest Contributor

The term “homebirth cesarean” didn’t exist before 2011, when Oregon mother and student midwife Courtney Jarecki coined it. But now, a Google search returns almost 2,000 entries on the topic.

The term refers to a small but emerging community of mothers who have experienced the extremes of birth: They’d planned to have their babies at home, but ended up in a hospital, most often in the operating room having a cesarean section, major abdominal surgery. Needless to say, the effect of such a dramatic course change takes a toll, and can often be overwhelming.

(“Homebirth cesarean” can also refer to births that were planned to occur at a freestanding birth center outside of a hospital, but eventually were transferred to the hospital for a cesarean.)

How often does this happen?

Home births, though a small fraction of the approximately 3.9 million births a year in the U.S., are on the rise. Based on the most recent birth data from the National Center for Health Statistics, “the 36,080 home births in 2013 accounted for 0.92% of all U.S. births that year, an increase of 55% from the 2004 total.”

Eugene Declercq, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, studies national birth trends. He said in an email that while there are no nationwide numbers on homebirth transfers to the hospital, “the studies that have been done usually report about a 12% intrapartum transfer rate.”

But beyond the numbers, what happens emotionally when your warm and fuzzy image of natural childbirth in the comfort of home suddenly morphs into the hard reality of a surgical birth under fluorescent lights?

A woman who'd planned a homebirth but ended up having a cesarean in the hospital. (Photo courtesy: Courtney Jarecki)

A woman who’d planned a homebirth but ended up having a cesarean in the hospital. (Photo courtesy: Courtney Jarecki)

Jarecki founded the homebirth cesarean movement to figure that out. She connected women who, like herself, shared the experience of giving birth through full surgical intervention, despite their original plans of having their babies at home or outside of the established medical system.

In Jarecki’s case, she labored at home for 50 hours until her midwives detected a rare complication known as a constriction ring, or a thickened band of tissue in her uterus that was impeding progress. Shortly after this, meconium appeared, and Jarecki knew it was time to go to the hospital. Her emotional response to the intensity of the situation, however irrational, was one of anger, shame and failure at her ability to give birth normally. A cesarean followed.

Over the next several years, Jarecki began helping other homebirth cesarean mothers emerge from the silence and shame they felt confronting their unexpected surgeries. Some of these women also report that their postpartum recovery was tougher because their unique needs were not adequately addressed by their home birth midwives or their hospitals.

Jarecki started by launching a (now busy) Facebook page as a support group for these mothers and their health care providers.

Childbirth Expectations vs. Reality

Rule number one in childbirth is that it rarely unfolds as you expect. Continue reading

Lawsuits Move Forward, Brought By Women Hurt By Vaginal Mesh

With all of the complications related to vaginal mesh — which we reported on several years ago — the influential doctors group the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently issued an article, “What Is New in the Use of Mesh in Vaginal Surgery?” offering data published in the past year on the topic.

One notable point about the implants, used to lift sagging pelvic organs back into place, is that removing a vaginal mesh implant that has been causing problems doesn’t always fix the problems. The article, by John R. Fischer, M.D. of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, says:

Complications from placement of permanent synthetic mesh for vaginal prolapse repair are well-documented, but there is little to guide physicians regarding outcomes after surgical removal of trans-vaginal mesh. This is a retrospective review of patients who underwent excision of trans-vaginal mesh owing to complications. The most common issues were pelvic and vaginal pain, mesh exposure, and a bulge sensation…After removal, 51% of patients reported complete resolution of their symptoms, with mesh exposure mostly likely to respond to treatment. Of those who presented with pain, 51% reported persistent pain after excision.

Fischer concludes: “…of the many symptoms that are treated with mesh excision, persistent pain may be the most difficult. Patients with a history of chronic pain may not be ideal candidates for the use of synthetic mesh.”

Dr. Peter Rosenblatt, Director of Urogynecology at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., says that use of the mesh implants has, indeed, gone down. In an email, he writes:

There has certainly been a decline in the use of transvaginal mesh to treat prolapse, although many pelvic reconstructive surgeons still offer this treatment to patients who are at high risk of failure from traditional surgical repair of pelvic organ prolapse. The FDA safety update in 2011 raised concerns that some of the complications that are unique to these procedures, especially erosion (or more accurately “exposure”) of the mesh through the vaginal wall, are “not rare” and that physicians needed to counsel their patients about the potential risks of using mesh. Surgeons and their patients should weigh these risks versus the potential benefits of transvaginal mesh, which includes improved anatomic success rates. There is also no question that the ubiquitous and never-ending television ads by law firms have instilled a real sense of fear and apprehension among women who are suffering with these problems.

Meanwhile, myriad lawsuits brought by women who say they were harmed by the mesh implants, made by a Ethicon, a subsidiary of the drug giant Johnson & Johnson, continue.

Earlier this month, a California jury returned a $5.7 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff in a vaginal mesh case, according to a local TV news report.

And a West Virginia jury last year awarded $3.27 million to a woman who underwent surgery to remove a vaginal mesh device, reports the National Law Journal. Continue reading

New Spending Bill Adds Abortion Coverage For Peace Corps Rape Victims

File this under: “About #$@%&*! Time.

Tucked away in the recently passed $1.1 trillion federal spending bill is a provision that, according to women’s health and abortion rights advocates, is long overdue, ending a 35-year-old ban. The new measure offers abortion coverage to Peace Corps volunteers victimized by rape, incest or facing a life-threatening pregnancy; similar coverage is already provided to federal employees.

Bryan Dwyer, director of Peace Corps and Training in Kigali, Rwanda, and a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 2000-2002, expressed his strong approval for the new measure:

As both an RPCV [Returned Peace Corps Volunteer] and staff member, I am very pleased that PC [Peace Corps] Volunteers will now be afforded this protection, even as I earnestly hope that no one ever needs to avail herself of it.

Another former Peace Corps employee I talked to was a bit more blunt:

In a long overdue concession to reality, conservative members of Congress no longer forced their abusive “no choice no matter what” policy on women in the Peace Corps. For far too many years, they had prevailed in insisting that women who choose to serve our country who had been raped and impregnated should be repaid with no health care coverage to end those pregnancies. I am glad this truly appalling policy is finally at an end.

Edson Chilundo/flickr

Edson Chilundo/flickr

Here are more details and background in a Glamour magazine report:

Over the weekend, the Senate passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that includes a provision to provide abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

It’s an important win for reproductive rights advocates in a year plagued by restrictions on abortion and other women’s health measures. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law, granting Peace Corps volunteers and trainees the same type of abortion coverage offered to federal employees….

Currently, just over 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are female, and many of them work in areas with little to no access to safe, reliable health care. Continue reading

Why To Exercise (Outdoors) Today: Tranquility For Aging Ladies

(frodrig/Flickr)

(frodrig/Flickr)

It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s uninviting out there. So, all the more reason to drag yourself outside and do something.

In yet another study on how exercise can combat the bad physical and mental effects of aging, new research suggests that women who can get out the door, fight the elements and exercise might find some nifty benefits. Those benefits include alleviating depression and increasing adherence to an exercise program.

The small study, published in the journal Menopause, asserts it’s the outside air that really helps (as opposed to the stuffy gym or the treadmill in your basement, though I’ve found that when you’re desperate, those work too):

“Between baseline and week 12, depression symptoms decreased and physical activity level increased only for the outdoor group…” write the authors, led by Isabelle Dionne of the University Institute of Geriatrics of Sherbrooke in Quebec.

From the Reuters report:

Outdoor workouts left women in a better mood and kept them exercising longer than counterparts who exercised indoors, according to a small study from Canada.

Results of the three-month trial involving women in their 50s and 60s suggest that outdoor exercise programs should be promoted to help older women keep active, the researchers conclude…Only about 13 percent of Canadian women older than 59 years and less than 9 percent of older American adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week… Continue reading

Culture Clash: U.K. Embraces Homebirth As Best For Some Women

Sarah Parente shortly after the homebirth of her daughter Fiona (Courtesy of Leilani Rogers)

Sarah Parente shortly after the homebirth of her daughter Fiona (Courtesy of Leilani Rogers)

By Jessica Alpert

Sarah Parente, an Austin, Texas-based doula and mother of four, gave birth to her first child in the hospital with no complications. But then she decided to make a shift: Parente delivered her next three babies at home. “For women with low-risk pregnancies, home birth can be a great choice,” she says. “You have less stress because you are in your own home surrounded by a birth team of your choosing.”

Though home birth has recently gained cache in the U.S. — with some celebrities trumpeting the benefits of having their babies at home  — the practice remains uncommon and the majority of pregnant women give birth in a hospital setting. Still, Parente may be getting a little more company, albeit slowly. Data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) earlier this year shows the rate of homebirths in the U.S. has increased to 0.92 percent in 2013 and the rate of out-of-hospital births (including home) has increased 55 percent since 2004.

Experts in the United Kingdom are saying that’s a good thing.

The London-based National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recently released recommendations that homebirths and midwife-led centers are better for mothers and often just as safe for babies as hospital settings, the BBC reports. Of the 700,000 babies born in England and Wales each year, nine out of 10 are born in obstetric-led units in hospitals. Continue reading