Can Stress Make Morning Sickness Worse?

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Anyone who has experienced “morning sickness” will likely tell you that the term is misleading–it can strike all day. Since the affliction is so common, it can seem like everyone (and their mother) has a home remedy, old wives’ tale, or trick to tame pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting. However, if you’re pregnant, anxious, and feeling pukey, you might wonder if stress makes morning sickness worse.

What is morning sickness

When pregnant, your body releases hormones, including estrogen and progesterone, to help you grow and sustain a new life. These hormonal shifts take a toll on the body, though. “Normal hormonal changes cause a slowing of the digestive tract and relaxation of the intestinal muscles, which all contribute to nausea and morning sickness during pregnancy,” says Sheryl A. Ross, MD, an OB/GYN in Santa Monica, California.

Everyone is different, but many pregnant people experience nausea, vomiting, constipation, loss of appetite, or other tummy troubles. And even though morning sickness tends to occur during the first trimester, it can happen throughout pregnancy (and at any hour), according to the Mayo Clinic.

How does stress affect morning sickness

Pregnancy-related nausea can show up even if you’re in the calmest state of your life, Dr. Ross says, but “stress can also trigger and exacerbate morning sickness.”

Why? When you experience stress, your body releases cortisol, which is a stress hormone, says Cindy M. Duke, MD, an OB/GYN and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Medicine. When cortisol rises alongside elevated pregnancy hormone levels, you might experience a wide range of reactions, including slowed digestion and “a build-up of gastric acid secretions with nausea and even vomiting,” Dr. Duke explains.

To be clear: stress can cause tummy troubles all by itself. “[It] affects the digestive system and can cause nausea and vomiting even among people who aren’t pregnant,” says Tanya J. Peterson, a nationally certified counselor, author, and mental health educator at the American Institute of Stress. So, if you’re pregnant and full of anxiousness, Peterson concludes that you might be more prone to morning sickness symptoms.

Additionally, Peterson notes that, when you’re stressed, your body might be more sensitive. You might be able to deal with the hormonal fluxes of pregnancy and the physical symptoms under non-stressful circumstances, but anxiousness might make you–an otherwise chill person–feel morning sickness more acutely.

What should you do to manage symptoms during pregnancy

Tackling the symptoms of nausea may help ease both your physical symptoms and your stress around them. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends the BRATT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, and tea) for vomiting and nausea. Additionally, you might consider drinking clear beverages, but above all, listen to your body and keep track of what feels good during this phase.

If you cannot keep food down, you should talk to your healthcare provider, who may give you fluids to prevent dehydration, Dr. Duke says. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help with morning sickness or stress-related anxiety, she says. Or, they might conduct a full physical exam. This might include checking your “thyroid to ensure that the sense of ‘stress’ is not actually due to underlying medical conditions like an overactive thyroid,” Dr. Duke says.

If you’re not pregnant yet (and you’re reading up on morning sickness), plan to create stress-reducing tools before gestation. “Ideally, people should introduce stress management techniques before getting pregnant. However, I suggest starting [to assess] stress levels and incorporating stress-reduction techniques as early as possible,” says Loree Johnson, PhD, LMFT, an infertility therapist and coach.

While this might sound daunting, gentle exercise like yoga or walking can help alleviate stress and, with the guidance of your medical provider, you may be able to keep up the same level of exercise you enjoyed pre-pregnancy. Other manageable habits include getting a good night’s sleep–which will help physical and mental well-being. “Rather than trying to craft a grand plan for three trimesters of stress relief, go about it moment by moment, honoring your feelings, thoughts,” Peterson says.

And if you’ve tried to manage stress on your own and still feel poorly, you should consider chatting with a mental health professional about how to manage any stress or anxiousness you’re feeling, Dr. Johnson says. Whether you’re dealing with morning sickness, stress, or both, try to remember that you deserve support and care.

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