Hormones! The fabulous and the wild ride of pregnancy (Part 1 of 2)
OK…there are a lot of jokes about hormones. But, kidding aside, during pregnancy hormones are ricocheting around you like 10000 invisible neon boomerangs at warp speed. It’s real. And like everything pregnant, each pregnancy will bring its own experience.
What do hormones do?
Hormones are part of our regulatory system. They’re vital to our wellbeing. And, we have a bunch of them (about 50) in different categories so it’s worth understanding their purpose. Each hormone has a specialized role and are critical to our health. The entire hormone system is called the endocrine system.
Briefly, hormones are chemicals our bodies produce to regulate our bodies and behaviour. They’re microscopic messengers travelling through the bloodstream to different parts of our bodies to control how our bodies function.
So, what are examples of hormones? Did you know insulin is a hormone? Did you know vitamin D is actually a hormone? And melatonin we buy over the counter to help with sleep, well that’s a hormone too. There are hormones regulating digestion, growth, metabolism. Estrogen and progesterone are hormones. And there are hormones like endorphins regulating our moods. Those are just a handful of examples.
But for this blog, let’s take a quick look at the primary hormones during pregnancy.
Get the ball rolling – first trimester
With pregnancy the body is trying to regulate itself to the needs of the pregnancy. A pregnant teen or woman will produce more estrogen for the needs of the uterus and placenta, and with the increased blood flow in pregnancy the hormones are flooding through the body. Ideally, going to where they need to be.
Progesterone is busy helping the uterus prepare for the egg to settle in and implant, and it prevents the uterus from contracting until much later – in labour. But it can also mess with your digestive system and cause constipation. And, the extra progesterone can stir up mood swings. Yippee, right? A normally content and happy woman can be struck by sudden mood swings. If they’re not understood (i.e. you don’t know you’re pregnant yet) the woman may think she’s suddenly losing her mind.
But, it’s temporary.
And it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. And, as mentioned, every pregnancy is different.
The extra estrogen is busy helping the body prepare for the fetus. It’s also causing you to have achy breasts, or a stuffy nose, or having to pee more often as your body is managing the extra hormones and fluids the pregnancy is creating.
In pregnancy there is a very specific hormone. It only kicks in during pregnancy. It’s called hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). It’s the hormone the home pregnancy tests look for. This hormone is vital because it’s developing the placenta, and it’s thought to contribute to morning sickness.
If you’re having a pregnancy like one of my friends did certain smells can become overwhelming thanks to hCG. Even smells and scents you normally enjoy (i.e. favorite perfume, chocolate chip cookies baking, laundry soap) can suddenly become quite overwhelming and nauseating for a while.
Happily, the hCG hormone tends to settle down around the end of the first trimester/start of the second. So, if you’re affected strongly by the hCG, once you enter the second trimester it’s common for you to start to feel more like your old self.
And, not to be overlooked! Your thyroid is super busy adjusting to the fetal development. The fetus needs a healthy thyroid and so your physician or health care team will be checking your TSH levels (thyroid stimulating hormone).
The second trimester
Moving along to the second trimester, prenatal yoga or other specialized exercises may help you manage some of the discomfort you might start feeling in your pelvis. Your body is physically changing. Parts are slowly moving and adjusting to the developing fetus – primarily in your pelvic area. The uterus and cervix continue developing for the fetus and the hormone ‘relaxin’ is part of this process.
During pregnancy, relaxin works to soften the uterine wall, widen the cervix and prevent premature childbirth by letting your body recognize the developing fetus as a part of you – it prevents your body from rejecting the fetus. It can also help your heart, lungs, and kidneys adapt to the fetus’s growing demand for oxygen and nutrients.
The increase in estrogen and progesterone may change your skin colour due to changes your skin’s natural pigmentation the hormones can cause. This is the time when a pregnant woman might develop the ‘pregnancy mask’, freckles and moles might become more noticeable, nipples could darken, and a darker line might start developing that goes up your belly.
Oh, and you might notice your hair starts growing faster, too. That can be kind of fun.
Another hormone important during pregnancy is cortisol. You might be thinking negative things about it because it’s commonly associated to stress. And, hey! We don’t want you to be stressing out during pregnancy. But, in pregnancy cortisol is a needed hormone. Why? It helps with metabolism and blood sugar levels. However, it can also cause a few issues with your blood pressure and a you might have a redder face.
Since we’ve mentioned blood sugar levels you might be thinking of gestational diabetes. It can happen. And one of the reasons why is because the placenta manufactures another hormone. This one is called HPL (human placental lactogen) and it can impact insulin resistance.
Your body is a hormonal machine.
The third and final!
OK – you’re in the home stretch. And maybe you’re thinking ENOUGH or you’re loving the experience. It’s easier when you’re loving it, but it’s OK if you’re not. There’s lots going on in pregnancy.
There are a few more hormones ramping up during this trimester and your body is also starting to prep for postpartum changes.
Really, when you think about this, your body is quite amazing! It just keeps adjusting. The other reassuring thing about your body is this – it wants to be healthy.
Estrogen and progesterone are still going full tilt getting both you and the fetus ready for delivery.
Maybe you’re wondering why you might be having heartburn now? Believe it or not, that can be thanks to progesterone. It can relax part of your digestive system (one of the many sphincters in our bodies) that manages the entry of food into your stomach. The result? You can experience reflux because your digestive system has temporarily changed, and the sphincter is not working as it did before.
You might notice more swelling in your feet and ankles (if you can see them!). This can be attributed to a few things, one of which is estrogen levels. Why? Because estrogen is related to another hormone managing fluids in the body.
During this trimester a hormone called prolactin becomes more active. It revs up and starts preparing the breast for milk and so your breasts get larger. While the breast milk doesn’t arrive until after delivery (when estrogen and progesterone levels drop), colostrum being made ready. You might experience some leakage before delivery. It’s Ok.
What can you do?
Pregnancy brings many changes into your life. It’s important you find the best possible tricks to be as healthy as you can be. Healthy includes your mind, body and spirit as the secret to your overall well being.
If you’re struggling with mood swings – talk to your health practitioner, try laughter yoga (just Google it), or check in with other pregnant women/teens to learn with them. Some of this can be related to your hormones but it can be related to other issues. Pregnancy is a big deal regardless of what you are choosing to do. So, emotions can be high as you figure out life.
And, you may not be aware there is a depression common during pregnancy, and there is postpartum depression which we are more familiar with. Stay tuned for more information on those depressions.
If you’re exhausted, try to sleep and nap as much as you can. I know that’s easier said than done. You’re not being lazy.
Your body is working overtime and you are getting used to being pregnant. I had a great friend who was having a wonderfully healthy pregnancy who never meant to nap, but as soon as she sat down in the staff room (if nobody was there) she would nod off and have a nap. And, we would let her sleep for as long as we could.
If you’re normally an active person, stay active. If you’re not sure how active you can be, talk to your health care team. But if you can get some exercise, it can help. Go for a walk in a park, along a favorite street, or if you have the good fortune to live near water, walk along the shore or riverbank.
If you’re not normally active, this is not the time to become a Supergirl/Wonder woman triathlon athlete. Start gently by enjoying a walk, a low impact exercise, swimming…and always run your fitness ideas past your health team.
Because of the pandemic, you may not want to visit a gym. There are lots of groups on YouTube and other social media you can check out or join.
But again, be sure to check with your health care team as some exercises might cause you trouble in your pregnancy. Be safe and be sure the exercises you’re doing are safe during pregnancy as your body changes.
If you’re worried about how you feel physically then please talk to your health team. They will help you understand what is normal for you this time. Everyone’s normal is different and every pregnancy you have can be different from the one before.
While pregnancy impacts you and your body, it impacts those who share your life, too. They can be confused, worried, reactive, happy, and scared (sometimes all at the same time!). It’s important for them to talk to people, too. Depending where you live there may be groups for fathers, same sex parents, children and siblings.