Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Too much stress during pregnancy can leave a lasting legacy on you and your baby

A certain amount of stress on your body is generally considered normal and even important in conditions such as when you are ill, says UrBod Nutritionist Melody Mackeown, who specialises in pre-conceptual care, fertility and pregnancy. But the stress suffered by today's expectant mothers, many of whom want to carry on their careers, can be extreme.

Everyone has a certain amount of the "stress hormone" cortisol naturally present in the body but levels rise under stress.

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands and helps the body in stressful situations by providing a burst of energy needed for 'fight or flight'.

The base level of cortisol fluctuates throughout the day. In the morning it is higher and it reduces by evening.

The average level of cortisol is measured in nanomoles per litre and in a healthy adult would be between 150 and 500nmol/l. But under stress – such as a person on the night before an operation – this level could double to 300 and 1,000nmol/l. Sustained exposure to these levels is likely to cause serious health problems, including high blood pressure.

Usually the placenta stops most of the mother's stress hormones reaching the baby. But it is thought that if there are high levels of the hormones, or if the placenta is not working properly, significant amounts reach the unborn child. One theory is that while the developing baby is exposed to the stress hormone their own developing reproductive organs may also be damaged, which would affect the health of future generations.

Dr Lisa Thorn, a researcher from the Psychophysiology and Stress Research Group at the University of Westminster, London, said: "What goes on in your head does impact your health and it impacts on different people in different ways. To what extent depends on the person, the level of stress and how they appraise something as being stressful or not."

Importantly many first time mums-to-be carry on working until 1-2 weeks before the birth of their baby, says UrBod Nutritionist Melody Mackeown, as they do not realise how exhausted they will feel in the last trimester (especially if you have a difficult commute into work or are expected to work long hours). This impacts on any ‘normal’ stress you experience while pregnant (such as back ache etc) and does not give you time to relax sufficiently before the birth of your baby. While many women need to work up to the birth for financial reasons, where you don’t, think twice about starting maternity leave at such as late stage and taking time out for yourself and your baby. Labour is an extremely exhausting event and so are the sleepless nights that are accompanied for the arrival of your bundle of joy.

Making the correct food choices can also reduce the amount of stress you and your baby will experience says UrBod Nutritionist Melody Mackeown, as it provides you with the correct nutrients to deal with stress more effectively. For example, many people become more irritable and feel low or depressed as a result of having a blood sugar imbalance. Further, an estimated 1 in 10 mothers experience some form of post-natal depression and how you feel directly impacts on how your baby may feel. This can be helped or possibly avoided by making the best dietary choices for you. This is especially important when you are about to have a baby. I know from experience that sleep deprivation is a huge stressor!

To find out more about Nutritional support during or before your pregnancy, contact UrBod Nutritionist Melody Mackeown Dip.ION (mBANT), specialist in pre-conceptual care, fertility and pregnancy care in the city of London, EC2. I have also written a free e-book on how you can improve your diet during your pregnancy, which can be obtained by clicking on my link.