by Dr. Stephanie Peltz, ND
Pregnancy is a time of wonder and revel; it can also be a time where our body is presenting all sorts of new and unusual symptoms. While pregnant, a woman’s body goes through enormous changes. These changes are not only localized, but often affect all aspects of core functioning. Pregnancy is also a time when attention must be paid to the safety of over-the-counter and prescription medications. What a perfect gateway into the realm of natural remedies!
When composing a list of top common complaints in pregnancy, I was reminded how deeply a woman’s digestion is altered when pregnant. The hormonal influx at this time (namely of progesterone) is equivalent to taking 100 birth control pills per day. This results in the relaxation of the sphincters of digestion separating one part of the GI tract from the next. It also means there is a slow-down in the typical peristalsis that helps drive food down the tract. In addition, the body has a natural adaptation to pregnancy that decreases the production of stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes. And finally, in later pregnancy, the growing size of the baby displaces organs of digestion causing more symptoms. All this leads to some of the most common reasons patients visit their care provider’s in pregnancy: nausea, constipation, and heartburn.
Nausea is often an early symptom of pregnancy. When mild, I remind women that it can be a sign of a viable pregnancy and I simply monitor. When there is increased nausea, occasional vomiting, and an interruption in daily tasks, I’ll look at diet first. Eating regularly (potentially every 1-2 hrs), and focusing on unrefined carbohydrates (like brown rice cakes) and protein (like beans or organic poultry) helps. Most women feel better when they leave snacks by the bed for the middle of the night or early morning. There are also various beneficial herbs, most importantly ginger. I recommend taking it as a tea throughout the day. In addition, vitamin B6 is useful to help the body metabolize the massive increase in hormones. Acupuncture is a great recommendation at this time, and there is evidence that it is a safe and effective treatment of mild/moderate nausea. If symptoms are severe and last beyond the first trimester, other interventions (such as medication) are a consideration.
Constipation can occur anytime in a pregnancy. It also predisposes pregnant women to another discomfort common in pregnancy, hemorrhoids. Again, my first intervention is through the diet. Being certain to stay hydrated is key (I use water, and at times even electrolyte replacement). Lots of dietary fiber is necessary through all varieties of seeds, fruit (like berries), and vegetables (like leafy greens). I may recommend the use of herbs like slippery elm powder and marshmallow tincture to soothe the digestive tract. Also, something I watch is supplemental iron. Because pregnancy and childbirth are so costly on a woman’s iron stores, an iron supplement is considered a key part of maintaining health at this time. However, all iron is not created equal and some forms can lead to constipation. It is important to rule out whether your iron supplement is a factor, and if so replace it with a more digestible form.
Heartburn is often experienced for the first time in pregnancy. It can occur at any time but peaks towards the end of pregnancy. The relaxation of the sphincter separating the stomach and esophagus allows gastric acid to leak. As well, at this point, the size of the baby is impacting the space the digestive tract occupies, increasing compression. Eating multiple small meals, and avoiding reclining for at least 1 hour after eating are the first steps. I recommend increasing the consumption of fruit like papaya and pineapple because they contain natural digestive enzymes. In some cases these enzymes are needed in capsule form to aid in the timely digestion of a meal. Chewing a few almonds after a meal can help prevent or address heartburn. They are also protein rich which helps to keep a stable blood sugar. Finally, the minerals calcium and magnesium are indicated for heartburn, especially in liquid form.
These are only a few tips along the way of pregnancy. Be assured if you are experiencing any of the above issues you are not alone, and there are lots of options out there. There are, of course, lots of other pregnancy symptoms to think about, but also lots of overlap in the way they can be addressed naturally. And keep in mind, pregnancy is time-limited, after it’s all over is when the real fun begins!
Dr. Stephanie Peltz is a licensed naturopathic doctor and a mom of an active 3 yr old boy. She has a passion for natural medicine and lovingly looks after her patients using the least invasive therapies possible. Her practice is located in the Yaletown area, and she focuses on optimizing women’s health including fertility, the perinatal period, and pediatrics. SAGE CLINIC