Nausea in Pregnancy: Boon and Bane?

No one would argue that morning sickness, or nausea in pregnancy (referred to medically as nausea and vomiting of pregnancy or NVP), is a miserable experience, and one that impacts over half of pregnant women. But interestingly, research suggests that there may be some meaning to the misery. There are a fascinating array of benefits linked to nausea and pregnancy. Luckily research also seems to indicate that the “benefits” of nausea in pregnancy are discernible even when morning sickness is well controlled – so take heart! Women do not need to suffer through morning sickness to “give their baby the best” when help can be found.

So what are the benefits of nausea during pregnancy?

  • Increased IQ. Seriously. In 2009, researchers Nulman, Rovet, Barrera, Knittel-Keren, Feldman and Koren did a study to look at the effects of Diclectin (an anti-nausea drug) on the long-term neurological development of children. They compared three groups of children between the ages of 3-7: those born to women without nausea in pregnancy, those whose mothers had morning sickness and were not treated with Diclectin, and those whose mothers had morning sickness and were treated with Diclectin. Their research showed that the predictors of increased IQ were the IQ of the mother and the severity of nausea in pregnancy as described by the mother at 6-9 months gestation. Increased severity of morning sickness correlated with increased scores on multiple different IQ measures! Isn’t that fascinating? If you feel great, don’t worry – all IQ scores were within normal. And in case you are curious, treatment with Diclectin did not appear to adversely affect fetal brain development.
  • Researchers from the University of Liverpool and Cornell University have hypothesized that nausea in pregnancy plays a protective role by decreasing the likelihood that women will ingest foods that may present a danger to their baby. The Liverpool study focused on food aversion and found that the most common food aversions in pregnancy are to meats, fish, poultry and eggs, which they posit would be the foods that carried the highest risk of food borne illness before our current refrigeration capabilities. In the Cornell study, published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, the emphasis was on harsh phytochemicals and the potentially protective role of vomiting.
  • Women who experience morning sickness are significantly less likely to miscarry than women who do not.

Tips for managing morning sickness

There is a wide range of severity of nausea in pregnancy, with dehydration, weight loss, and electrolyte imbalances on the most severe end of the scale, affecting 1% of pregnant women. (Hyperemesis gravidarum is the medical term for this.) Food aversion, bloating, and nausea without vomiting are at the other end of the scale. Because the experience of morning sickness is so different woman to woman, the treatments are equally varied.

1. Believe you can care for yourself!

Researchers Lindseth, Buchner, Vari and Gustafson from the University of North Dakota did a fascinating study looking at predictive factors for who would experience nausea in pregnancy. They found some correlations one would expect, such as higher rates of morning sickness among women who have had previous episodes of motion sickness or air sickness. They found some correlations that make sense with our physical understanding of the cause of morning sickness (increased estrogen levels) such as higher rates of morning sickness among women who used oral contraceptives. They ruled out some interesting possibilities such as quality of life and nutritional factors. The number one difference between women with and without morning sickness was a surprise! The best indicator of whether or not a woman will have nausea and pregnancy is a woman’s belief that “I can care for myself.” Isn’t that fascinating?

It struck me as an illustration of the body’s incredible wisdom. If you can’t care for yourself, you need the help of others! Help is attracted by physical display of need. Human helpers are far more likely to reach out to someone who looks sick than to someone who is full of energy and feeling great. It makes sense! And I believe that pregnant women should be supported with special care from their loved ones and the community at large. If nausea helps this happen, let’s allow ourselves to be impressed by the body’s abilities to generate support. Since nausea is miserable, perhaps we could kindly suggest to our bodies that we can either take care of ourselves, or find more agreeable ways to ask for the support we need.

2. Modify Your Water: Lemon Water, Carbonation or Herbal Tea

I find that many women with even mild nausea in pregnancy cannot drink plain water. Getting enough water is a key to relieving nausea, but it’s hard to do when water itself brings the nausea on. Here are instructions for making a strong lemon water. This has helped many women!

Lemon water for nausea relief

  1. Thoroughly wash a lemon (organic preferred).
  2. Slice it into thin rings with the peel on.
  3. Place lemon slices in the bottom of a glass picture. Plastic is not recommended because the strong oils in the lemon can interact with the plastic.
  4. Cover the lemon slices in a sprinkling of sugar. Use enough sugar to coat most of the lemon.
  5. Allow to sit for 15 min.
  6. Fill pitcher with water and drink or refrigerate. Refrigerated lemon water should be good for 48 hours. When you drink one batch you can refill the pitcher a second time before discarding lemons and starting again. Typically you can make enough lemon water for 2 days.

Alternative ideas to make water more palatable are to add carbonation or to drink herbal teas for pregnancy. You can add carbonation to a variety of drinks, and save money, by purchasing a home soda maker. Look for one, such as the Revolution by SodaStream, that allows you to control the amount of carbonation added so you can find the level that works best for you.

3. Strong Flavors and Smells

Many women find that sucking on peppermint candies or strong lemon drops helps with their nausea and pregnancy. Preggie pops or drops are made for just this purpose. Some women find relief just from strong smells. Try slicing a fresh lemon and placing it in a bowl near your work station, or put a few drops of peppermint essential oil on a tissue to keep nearby. Peppermint is a strong essential oil. Be cautious that it does not touch your skin or rub into your eyes.

4. Diet Modification

There seems to be a cultural component involved in determining which foods trigger or calm nausea during pregnancy. The very foods that are common culprits in one culture are common cures in another. Studies done in the US and England suggest that sugars, sweeteners, caffeine, vegetables, meats, milk, and eggs increase nausea in pregnancy, while cereals and pulses (legumes) decrease morning sickness. One study identified seven traditional societies with virtually no morning sickness, and found that animal products were not a staple in any of them. Women are commonly advised to limit spicy foods, but I have had many clients who find that spicy foods are helpful for nausea and pregnancy. Avoiding fats and greasy foods is also a common recommendation.

So what is a woman to do? I recommend starting with a pregnancy meal plan that meets the basic USDA nutrition recommendations for pregnant women. Many women do find that balancing their diet and eating what their body needs, even if you are force-feeding yourself, improves nausea in a few days. Pay special attention to foods rich in B vitamins and iron. In order to get the most out of your meal plan, track your responses to various foods. When you have a meal or a snack that settles well highlight it on your meal plan. When you have a meal that you can’t stomach try switching to different options that meet the same dietary goals. For example, if you look at your toast and get a telling lump in your throat try a whole wheat woven cracker instead. If cantaloupe is a no-go, grab a strawberry frozen fruit bar. Experiment until you find a few foods in each food category that you can eat, and then feel free to stick with those.

I understand that when you are nauseous it is challenging to even think about food. Follow this link for a lot of tips on how to successfully create and follow a meal plan when it is hard to eat during pregnancy.

You can also play with the timing of when you eat certain foods. Many women find some relief by spreading out their protein intake into smaller snacks every 2 hours, whereas others find that they do better with fruits and crackers in the morning and protein at night. Adding a protein rich snack in the middle of the night often helps considerably. What works for you?

Don’t despair if you can’t take in a balanced diet, especially if you are between 4 and 14 weeks pregnant. Great nutrition over time is a major health asset for you and your baby, but a few weeks of eating only what you can won’t harm anyone. Just get back on top of your game when the morning sickness gets better.

5. Exercise

Walking a mile a day aids nausea in pregnancy by helping the body eliminate the build-up of pregnancy hormones. It also helps to get out of bed slowly in the morning.

6. Natural Health Modalities for Nausea in Pregnancy

Acupuncture, reiki, hypnosis, and cranial sacral work have all been helpful to some pregnant women experiencing morning sickness. Consult a local practitioner, and ask questions about their experience working with pregnant women and with nausea and pregnancy.

Yoga poses can be an effective way to reduce nausea. Here is a video class sharing some yoga techniques for reducing morning sickness. Acupressure techniques can also be applied at home by the use of sea sickness bands. Deep relaxation aids such as this CD, “Overcoming Morning Sickness,” are also effective for some women. Another energy balancing technique is to play music from the baroque era through headphones placed about an inch below your navel. The rhythm of the music from this era has a vibrational calming effect on the body. This is a nice self-help technique to combine with Brazilian Toe Massage, another home-modality that can help alleviate nausea in pregnancy. Homeopathic remedies for nausea in pregnancy are Ipecac 30x or Nux vomica 6x.

7. Herbs to Relieve Morning Sickness

Many herbs may be useful for nausea in pregnancy. Any time you would like to use an herb for medicinal purposes check with a knowledgeable professional about any interactions that may occur between the herb and medications you are taking. It is also necessary to be sure you are using the herb in the proper form and potency for medicinal use.

Ginger is the most commonly used herb for nausea in pregnancy. There was controversy around the use of ginger because of the potential to cause birth defects and miscarriage. This concern was studied in 1991 and the FDA considers 5 grams of ginger per day, as a food, to be safe. Even 1 gram of ginger is a tremendous amount, and plenty for morning sickness management. It is important that you use ginger as a whole food, and not an isolated ginger compound. Either use fresh ginger in food preparations, or look for supplements containing the whole food rather than just one isolated chemical extracted from the ginger plant. Fresh ginger (found in most grocery stores) can be grated directly on foods, or boiled to make a tea. Some women make a stronger infusion by steeping ginger for 2-4 hours and then taking a tablespoon of the infusion regularly as nausea occurs throughout the day. There are natural ginger ales (actually, ginger beers) that are made with real ginger, however these beverages are high in sugar and may be counter productive.

Other teas that are recommended are a single cup of anise or fennel tea or regular use of red raspberry tea. Herbal tea in pregnancy, especially red raspberry, are considered safe. (Follow the link for more information on that topic.)

8. Prescription Medications

Your doctor or midwife can prescribe medications that help with nausea and pregnancy. Do not hesitate to advocate for yourself if you feel medication is necessary. Because morning sickness is so common women sometimes find that healthcare providers are prone to minimize your discomfort and the severity of your nausea during pregnancy.

On the other hand, there is a back lash to this that has resulted in early and over-prescription. Drugs are powerful and can affect the body in many ways, sometimes with undesirable side effects. Ask your doctor for current research regarding the efficacy and safety of any drug available to you, as well as about alternative options.

Putting it all together

Many women find that through a combination of techniques they are able to find relief from morning sickness. Be cautious about combining herbal and pharmaceutical techniques. Simply check with your health care provider or pharmacist about interactions. All of the other tips provided for nausea in pregnancy are safe to combine and use, and through trial I hope you will find a combination that works for you!

I recommend that you begin by asking your partner or a supportive friend to read this article and help you apply a few of the techniques. Together choose 2-3 ideas and decide how they can help you achieve them, such as calling local natural health practitioners, or preparing lemon water for you. Pregnancy is a rewarding time to reach out to others, and both parties will benefit from the purposeful partnership that results in closer connections and a shared sense of accomplishment and support.

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