Cloe Alvarado, 32, of Brooklyn N.Y. refused to eat, brush her teeth, shower or go grocery shopping -- trapped by heavyhearted despair and vivid nightmares two years ago.
After undergoing two previous miscarriages, Alvarado was finally pregnant with her son in August 2020 but felt incapable of taking care of herself mentally and endured debilitating anxiety attacks, yet she found a solution through light therapy.
"I was sometimes in bed for 30 hours without sleeping and some days sleeping for two hours. I was not functioning," Alvarado said to NBC New York during an interview.
Alvarado was suffering from perinatal depression that comes during or after pregnancy and is different than "baby blues," which is associated with feelings of worry or exhaustion within the first two weeks after delivery.
What is Perinatal Depression?
Perinatal and postpartum depression lasts longer than a couple of weeks and generally requires personalized treatment, such as talk therapy or antidepressants. On very rare occasions, postpartum psychosis may occur with extreme mood disorders, hallucinations and paranoia.
"You feel like the baby's here now, I should be happy. I should want to connect. I should want to bond and enjoy my little baby. Then, you don't, you don't know why and you feel ashamed, guilty and not say anything," explained Alvarado.
It's estimated that 1 in 8 women develop long-lasting symptoms, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
About 20 weeks in, this NYC mother joined a clinical trial at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research focusing on bright light therapy.
Let There be Light
"This study is using a novel approach that integrates bright light therapy, sleep scheduling and other interventions to reset the sleep-wake cycle to improve sleep and reduce depression," Dr. Kristina Deligiannidis, principal investigator of the trial, told News 4.
Light therapy, or phototherapy, is a method utilizing outdoor or artificial light sources to treat mental health conditions, such as seasonal affective disorder.
The goal of this research is to mix light therapy with a prescribed sleep schedule in order to quicken recovery and prevent postpartum depression in mothers experiencing mild to moderate symptoms.
With just under 60 participants spread across four hospitals, including UNC Chapel Hill, UVA University of Virginia and Brown University, patients are given an artificial light source and watch to monitor their rest.
"The intense increase and decrease of pregnancy hormones trigger depression by disrupting many brain systems, including circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles), inflammatory processes, and ultimately brain circuitry," said Dr. Deligiannidis, who notes women with perinatal depression may have a higher brain sensitivity to stress.
Mother on a Mission
After weeks of light therapy, Alvarado finally was making headway in changing her outlook on life and addressing the mental health stigmas that came with it, not being afraid or ashamed to seek help.
"They [clinical trial team] gave me purpose to my days. Not only was I a mother suffering through a perinatal mood disorder, but I was also a mom suffering through a pandemic with a husband with multiple sclerosis," said Alvarado, who currently works for The Citywide Doula Initiative, providing no-cost services to residents in underserved communities hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After participating in this trial, Alvarado feels reborn herself, grateful for her one-year-old, and does not recognize the person she was when pregnant.
Hoping to promote a new non-invasive standard of care treatment, this clinical study will continue for the next couple of years and is currently enrolling women around 20 weeks of pregnancy who either feel depressed or have sleeping difficulties.