In a perfect world, all women who become pregnant would have a relatively peaceful nine months, with plenty of leisure time to rest and to plan for the joyous arrival of their babies. But in the real world, adversity happens often. Sometimes, a woman is subjected to high stress levels during her pregnancy, whether the stress is related to money worries, family, a tragedy, or even problems with her partner.
Life does sometimes throw us curves that we did not anticipate. But if you are pregnant, you have an even greater reason to do everything in your power to take control of the stress in your life.
Many separate studies conducted over the last several decades by a large number of researchers have documented a long list of harmful effects to the baby, which can be observed at birth or many years later, as a result of high cortisol levels in the mother’s system during pregnancy.
Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid hormone synthesized by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. Its formal name is hydrocortisone; but it’s more commonly referred to as the “stress hormone” because it is considered the primary stress hormone for the body.
When a person is under stress, the adrenal glands release several hormones, including cortisol, into the blood. Cortisol causes blood sugar to increase for energy, so that we can fight or flee the perceived danger; it also enhances the brain’s use of sugar (glucose).
Cortisol is also necessary for many routine, important physiologic functions. But prolonged stress and the concurrent prolonged cortisol level increases have been amply documented to cause harm to humans (as well as other species).
In the case of pregnant women, high maternal cortisol levels were found to be more damaging to the unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy than in latter stages.
Some of the documented adverse effects to the child as a result of high exposure to maternal cortisol in the womb include: premature birth, low birth weight, increased fussiness and fearfulness in infants, behavioral and emotional problems in infancy and childhood, and greater reactivity by the older child to stress.
Because cortisol suppresses the immune system, that also means that a mother-to-be puts herself and her baby at greater risk of getting sick if she doesn’t take steps to relieve the stress in her life. All around, the best thing to do is to look for ways to reduce stress, both while you are pregnant and after you welcome your new baby home.
The following are time-tested methods for reducing stress that you can try, during and after your pregnancy:
- Low-impact exercises such as walks, stretching and yoga: We start with exercise because of its manifold health benefits. It will help get all your body’s systems in sync, improve your overall health, gently strengthen muscles and help burn excess fat, boost your immune system, and help you feel more relaxed and in control of your life. Consider joining an exercise class for moms-to-be, where you may wind up making new friends who can be there for mutual support when the babies start arriving
- Reach out to your loved ones: Schedule a periodic lunch or dinner with your favorite friends or family members, who will give you support and help you look at your situation more favorably or help you make important decisions about what to change to decrease your life stress
- Get plenty of sleep, and if you find that you need to sleep a little more when you’re expecting, so be it! Nothing will make a person feel more lethargic and hopeless than being sleep-deprived. Make sure you get 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Cut down on screen time (TV, computers, etc.), if you need to sleep a little more
- Make lists of the things that you will need for the baby, then start doing a little shopping! And while you’re out there, don’t forget to buy plenty of loose-fitting clothes for the months that follow! If you plan ahead for what’s to come, your feelings of stress will decrease
- Eat a healthy diet — this is more important than ever now. Avoid caffeinated beverages, which will make you extra-anxious (and they won’t help your developing baby, either). Drink plenty of water daily, to keep the right fluids in your body going to all the right places
- Don’t underestimate the power of humor! Pick up a book written by your favorite famous funny person
- Lose yourself in a novel that you always wanted to read, but hadn’t
- For the majority of us, who believe in a supreme Creator, prayer is certainly an important aspect of our daily lives, and if things aren’t going well at a sensitive time such as this, pray harder!
By Lisa Pecos