As an obstetrician-gynecologist, I am often asked about bodily changes that transpire with pregnancy. While it is easy to focus on the obtrusive changes that occur, there are many physiologic perks to pregnancy. Ever hear of the “pregnancy glow”? This occurs due to increased blood flow in pregnancy. Pregnancy hormones slow down the rate of hair loss, leading to thicker healthier appearing hair in pregnancy.
Unfortunately, this returns to normal once you deliver and you will shed all that extra hair. Similarly, thanks to hormonal changes and nutrients found in prenatal vitamins, women often experience longer stronger nails with faster growth and less breaks. The chest expands in pregnancy. While the ample bosom might be burdensome to some women with already large chests, many women love the changes their breasts undergo while pregnant. For those women with A-cups, they finally get to enjoy effortless cleavage!
As your bump becomes more noticeable, it seems people are much more willing to allow special treatment to pregnant women, such as cutting in bathroom lines or offering the last seat on a packed bus. Lastly, one of the most incredible sensations ever is feeling your little one kick, wriggle, and hiccup on the inside.
It takes a lot of work to grow a human! It is no surprise then that inevitably your body will go through some “bad” changes as well. The miracle of pregnancy often takes a toll on your energy level. Make sure to get plenty of sleep while pregnant - you are going to need it once the little one comes! Pregnancy hormones and discomfort often lead to disrupted sleep. This can lead to some very odd dreams while pregnant.
Avoid exhaustion by taking naps during the day and getting comfortable at night with a body pillow. Due to a decreased reserve volume in the lungs as the abdomen grows, normal things such as walking up stairs may be enough to make a pregnant woman breathless. Make sure to walk slowly and take your time. Breathlessness is normal in pregnancy during activity, but not normal at rest and not normal with chest pain. If you have any of these symptoms, you should consult your physician.
Women often experience emotional swings more dramatically while pregnant secondary to raging hormones. While pregnancy can be tough, many women report that it changes their outlook on life and causes them to appreciate the little things. Your blood volume increases by 50% in pregnancy, but your blood cells do not increase by as much. As a result of this, and your baby stealing nutrients from you, many women become anemic in pregnancy. Avoid anemia by taking a prenatal vitamin with iron and eating iron rich foods – such as broccoli, leafy greens, avocado, and lean red meats.
Lastly, pregnancy increases risk of blood clot development in the legs, which can be life-threatening if these propagate and travel to the lungs. Avoid clots by keeping active, elevating legs at rest, and wearing compression stockings.
Your body has different ways of coping with pregnancy, and sometimes does weird things. What some describe as the “ugly” of pregnancy, I view as badges of honor that come with motherhood. Stretch marks are one of these staples that few are immune to. During pregnancy, these usually appear on areas that are prone to rapid stretching and weight gain, such as the belly, breasts, and thighs. The skin can only stretch so far before the skin fibers start to tear and scar.
Genetics play a large role in how well your skin will stretch without tearing. Avoid stretch marks by gaining weight slowly and steadily. An increase in blood volume and hormones can cause tiny veins in the legs to branch out and become more visible, resulting in spider veins. These will worsen if you stand for long periods of time. Prevent these by elevating your legs when you rest and wearing support stockings.
Melasma, also known as “the mask of pregnancy”, include brown facial splotches that pop up on the forehead, cheeks, and chin. Avoid these by wearing sunscreen when outdoors. Approximately 75% of pregnant women also develop a dark line running along the middle of the abdomen, called the linea nigra. This is due to increase in the body’s production of melanin pigment, also responsible for darkening of the areolas in pregnancy. These usually go away after pregnancy.
Thicker hair on your head is amazing, but it is not so fabulous when it sprouts on your body. The same hormones responsible for your lush locks are also responsible for hair growth on your abdomen, face, nipples, and back. The good news is that it usually returns to normal postpartum. Some women are lucky enough to see a decrease in acne during pregnancy, but others have worsening acne.
Once again, hormonal changes are to blame. Your gastrointestinal (GI) system slows down in pregnancy due to increased hormones, which is great for maximizing nutrient absorption for your baby, but bad for constipation and gas formation. Avoid this by keeping active and well hydrated.
Due to increased intraabdominal pressure and a relaxing of the sphincter muscle in the stomach, many women experience heartburn, especially at night. Avoid heartburn by eating smaller amounts of food, not eating before bed, avoiding acidic foods (i.e. citrus, tomatoes, coffee, chocolate) and sleeping with your head slightly raised.
Due to increased abdominal pressure and constipation, some women experience hemorrhoids during pregnancy. Avoid these by preventing straining when using the restroom. During pregnancy, your vagina secretes more than usual, leading to increased vaginal discharge. This is normal, but you should contact a doctor if it develops a foul smell or itch.
Lastly, many women experience leg cramps or restless leg syndrome – an irresistible urge to move the legs. This usually happens at night and there is no cure. Massage and eating plenty of foods rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium (i.e. bananas), may help.
Pregnancy can be an exciting and challenging time. Don’t hesitate to as your physician or midwife about what to expect throughout your journey as each person experiences it differently.
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