If you're suffering from pregnancy sickness, you’re definitely not alone. Unfortunately for many pregnant women, nausea and vomiting are symptoms that can’t be avoided and, unlike the term ‘morning sickness’ suggests, it can happen at any time of day. It affects 70-80% of pregnant women, and 85% of those experience it around 2 times a day. Some women may not experience any nausea or vomiting at all, or may just feel a little queasy every now and again; others may experience sickness that can affect your everyday life, and even lead to severe nausea and sickness, known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). Generally, any level of sickness is normal and you shouldn’t be too concerned over what it means for your baby – it varies a lot from pregnancy to pregnancy so each woman’s experience will be different.
Why do we experience sickness during pregnancy?
Although currently there is no specific answer, it’s thought that feelings of sickness are caused by changing hormone levels, particularly the increase of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). HCG levels rise quickly after implantation and can be detected in urine. Home pregnancy tests are actually testing for a high concentration of HCG.
It’s released by the cells that are starting to form into the placenta. Although it does positive things for your pregnancy (helps build up lining of uterus walls to nurture your baby, making sure it gets the right nutrients and calories), it can also lead to sickness. It’s been found that the sickness can be worse when pregnancies have an elevated level of HCG, which occurs in molar pregnancies, multiples (2+ babies can mean 2+ placentas developing) and Down’s syndrome, although all of this varies from woman to woman. HCG levels increase rapidly from the start of pregnancy, peak at around 8-11 weeks and then start to reduce for the rest of pregnancy – this is why feelings of nausea can subside in the second trimester.
It has been found that genetics may have a part to play, particularly when it comes to HG. This extreme nausea and sickness can, unfortunately, be pretty serious, and has been found to run in families. The genes GDF15 and IGFB, identified by a study from UCLA, were found to be linked to ‘cachexia’ – a weight loss and muscle wasting condition. The team found that DNA variations around the two genes were associated with HG. So, although it's unfortunate that some women may have these genes and experience this condition, it's hoped that this discovery will help with the treatment of HG in the future.
During pregnancy, your body can become more resistant to insulin as it produces extra insulin to help your baby grow; this can lead to gestational diabetes. High blood sugar is normally more common during pregnancy, but low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) can also occur. Hypoglycemia is more common in women with diabetes who are already taking insulin and can lead to nausea and sickness.
It normally happens in the first trimester, particularly if you aren’t eating enough or are exercising lots. If you experience an episode of low blood sugar, you should sit down, eat or drink some simple carbs (sugar, honey, orange juice, etc.) and inform your doctor.
Heightened sense of smell
You may find that you’re noticing smells more, and smells you used to like might send you running for the bathroom - even coffee, bacon or your favourite perfume! It’s thought that this may be linked to hormone changes, and is your body’s way of keeping you away from things that it thinks are harmful. It’s been found that morning sickness only occurs in humans and it’s thought that this is due to our broad diet – we have evolved into bodies that find ways to keep us away from danger, as a way of protecting mothers and their embryos. This means that pregnancy sickness may be a useful function. You shouldn’t be concerned if you don’t experience it, as 1/3 of women don’t, and still have healthy pregnancies.
It’s also thought that a heightened sense of smell may be due to the increase of blood circulation, causing smells to be transferred to the brain quickly. This sense of smell on top of blood sugar and hormones can be one recipe for feeling very unwell.
When does it happen?
For some, sickness is the first sign of pregnancy – this can be a surprise if you haven’t been trying to get pregnant! It normally starts in the first trimester at around week 4-6, although it varies for each pregnancy.
Only around 10% of women experience sickness throughout their pregnancy. The rest will see it subsiding around week 16, during the second trimester – this period is often called the ‘golden trimester’, and the reduction in sickness is one of the reasons for that.
Around 30% of women don’t experience morning sickness, and this is completely normal, so it’s important not to worry if this is you.
Tips to help with pregnancy sickness
Look at your diet
- Eat small but frequent meals to keep blood sugar levels steady. Feelings of hunger can also add to feelings of nausea, so make sure you always have something like whole-wheat crackers, a cereal bar or a banana handy.
- Keep a snack by your bed to settle your stomach in the night or as soon as you wake up.
- Low levels of magnesium may make you feel nauseous – avoid salt and coffee, and put some magnesium rich foods into your diet (spinach, avocado, almonds, etc.).
- Eat foods high in vitamin B6 (chicken, salmon, broccoli, wholegrains, soya, etc.).
- Avoid strong flavoured foods and, if the smell of cooking makes you feel queasy, opt for cold meals (or get somebody else to cook for you).
- Chew food thoroughly to make it easier to digest.
- Make sure to keep hydrated with lots of water, tea or sucking on ice chips.
Avoid triggering it with smells
- Use fragrance free toiletries and cleaning products.
- Keep your home well ventilated – keep windows open and air flowing through. Or, if it’s winter, put on your scarf and gloves and go for a walk to get some fresh air.
But smells you like may help
- Many women find the smells of fresh lemon, ginger or rosemary can help reduce feelings of nausea.
- Try candles created specifically for pregnancy to fill your home with relaxing scents.
- Keep a handkerchief with some baby safe essential oils on it (try lavender, chamomile, peppermint or ginger), to smell if you start to feel queasy.
- Sickness can be stressful and exhausting, especially when you’re growing a little human inside of you – make sure to take time out for yourself.
- Your body needs to recover physically and mentally, so don’t feel guilty about taking a sick day or skipping a social event when you’re struggling and need to rest.
- Try lighting some lavender candles and taking a warm bath, visit your favourite park or invite friends over as you may feel more comfortable in your own home (and near your own bathroom).
- Get plenty of sleep. This may be difficult to do, but nausea can increase when you’re feeling fatigued. Check out or blog post on sleep during pregnancy for some tips.
Track your nausea
- Keep a log of when you feel nauseous or experience sickness.
- This may help you to pinpoint certain things that are making you sick – something you eat, or maybe lunchtime smells at work. By figuring out what your triggers are, it may help you to avoid them.
Create an emergency kit
For some, there may be certain times of the day when you know you’ll be sick, but it is often unpredictable. For peace of mind and to make things a little bit more comfortable, you could create an emergency kit for when you’re out and about. It could include:
- Tissues and wipes
- Sick bags (try nappy bags or the paper type you get on planes)
- A small bottle of water
- Travel toothbrush and toothpaste
When to contact your healthcare professional
Pregnancy sickness can be a very stressful event, especially if it lasts through the whole 9 months. Sometimes, the only cure is time, but if it becomes extreme then you should contact your doctor.
You should contact your healthcare professional if:
- You can’t keep fluids down for 24 hours
- You feel very weak, dizzy or faint when standing
- You’re experiencing tummy pain
- You haven’t had a wee in more than 8 hours
- Your wee is very dark or has blood in it, or it hurts when you wee
- You have lost weight
Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG)
1-3% of pregnant women will develop HG. It includes prolonged vomiting, the inability to eat or drink without being sick, weight loss and/or dehydration. If your symptoms start to affect your everyday life, you should talk to your healthcare professional who may check you for dehydration and malnutrition, multiple pregnancies or other conditions causing the sickness. They may offer you medication or admit you to hospital so that you can be looked after.
If you’re suffering from HG, it can seriously affect your daily life, and can also leave you feeling lonely and frustrated. pregnancysicknesssupport.org.uk offer a helpline and forum to help you through this difficult time, as well as more information on morning sickness.
We hope this has helped you to understand why you may (or may not) be experiencing sickness and nausea in your pregnancy. Let us know in the comments below how you deal/dealt with your pregnancy sickness.
And if you’re currently suffering with pregnancy sickness then hang in there; it will all be worth it when you meet your beautiful baby.