Humans are designed to sustain stressful events. You may have heard the phrase “you’re stronger than you think you are” used when you are about to undergo a stressful life event. Often you will surprise yourself of how well your body can manage under pressure. But what happens when we are pregnant and experiencing significant amounts of physical, emotional, or psychological stress? How does our body cope with the threat to our body and baby?
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces to manage your metabolism, blood pressure, sleep/wake cycles and the salt/water balance in your body. Cortisol is also responsible for creating the “fight or flight” response in your body when you are under stress. For example, if you are driving and a deer jumps in front of your car, your body will sense that you need to make a quick decision. Keep driving and hit the deer (fight) or swerve and try to avoid it (flight). This is a basic human response that has kept animals alive for thousands of years.
When your body senses that you have a perceived or actual threat, your brain and adrenal glands produce this hormone to regulate your response and ensure your safety. This changes slightly when you’re carrying a baby so that you can protect yourself, but also protect the baby from anything that could endanger its life. Too much cortisol can raise your blood pressure and reduce blood flow to the placenta and your baby, for example. Research shows that as mothers progress through pregnancy, they produce higher levels of cortisol. Indicating that we may naturally cope better with stress while pregnant for the sake of survival.
How does your body protect the baby?
A healthy level of cortisol in the human body is normal. We need this hormone to ensure that our heart can pump blood effectively, that our body can utilize the food we eat, and for our kidneys to make urine. During pregnancy, a woman will start producing more cortisol than pre-pregnancy so that the baby can sustain blood pressure, metabolism and balance salt intake as well. As this happens and your baby grows, your baby starts to produce this hormone as well in preparation for birth.
“Stress” varies for every person depending on life circumstances, previous memories and experiences and genetic predisposition. One person’s level of physical or emotional stress could be much less based on previously established coping mechanisms. During pregnancy, a woman will naturally utilize coping mechanisms to reduce the amount of perceived stress, as a way to prevent cortisol levels from increasing too much. In other words, your brain knows that too much stress can be dangerous for a baby, so it will find ways to bring cortisol levels down before this happens.
What are the outcomes of prolonged stress on a pregnancy?
Sometimes stress can not be avoided. Life circumstances and other people’s actions may affect our lives in ways that we can not control. Prolonged stress on your body is exhausting— you may feel fatigued and lethargic just from managing a physical or emotional event.
In the first trimester, your body is still very sensitive to increases in stress hormones. There is a higher chance of miscarriage in the first trimester with a sudden onset of prolonged stress on the body. As you progress through pregnancy, the evidence to support that this is the reason for preterm labor is limited, however, increased blood pressure is a by-product of stress and can be harmful to a baby which leads to preterm labor. Appetite can decrease due to increased stress, which may put a baby at risk of being malnourished or predispose mom to vitamin deficiency. After the baby is born, increased cortisol levels can affect milk supply and healing from birth.
Where can you ask for help?
One of the best ways to advocate for your baby is to advocate for yourself! Telling your physician about how stress is affecting your life can be a stepping stone for more support in your pregnancy. Taking time off work might be necessary if you have a stressful job. Utilizing your support system to help you with tasks that feel overwhelming. If you have people offering to make your meals, clean, grocery shop, or babysit your older children allow them to support you during this time. Your most important job as an expecting mama is to keep your body healthy for your baby.
Using professional resources like the support of a Mama Coach, a therapist, dietician or prenatal fitness instructor can reduce the workload for you. No one has ever complained because they were too supported during their pregnancy journey. Its all about asking for help!