Morning sickness is often the very sign a woman is pregnant. While there’s still debate within the medical community about the exact cause of morning sickness, what we do know is that for the roughly 50–80% of women who experience it, it’s pretty unpleasant. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to treat the symptoms. Here to soothe your stomach and mind are Dr. Alyssa Dweck, OBGYN and author, and real women who have lived through it.
So what is morning sickness, exactly?
Morning sickness refers to a feeling of nausea, often accompanied with gagging or vomiting, that occurs early on in a pregnancy. But why do some people experience it and others don’t? Well, as Dr. Dweck points out, “the exact etiology remains unknown, or we would have a 100% way to prevent it.” But there are a few theories, mostly revolving around the changing hormone levels in your body during pregnancy. Pregnant women will develop a protein called GDF15, produced by the placenta. Women who have a lot of it tend to experience nausea and vomiting, so this is one possible linkage.
Dr. Dweck says that she has also encountered research that suggests evolutionary biology is to blame, and that morning sickness evolved to help women avoid potentially toxic foods. Early pregnancy is a vulnerable time, so if you’re nauseous, you’re probably going to be pretty careful about what you eat and opt for safe, bland foods.
When does it occur?
Typically, morning sickness starts in the first or second month of pregnancy and often lasts throughout the first trimester. Dr. Dweck jokes that the second trimester of pregnancy is often referred to as the “holiday trimester,” since you’re starting to feel a bit better. Unfortunately, some women can experience morning sickness symptoms into their second trimester and even throughout their pregnancy. While prolonged symptoms might just be severe morning sickness, Dweck advises talking to your doctor. There may be another factor to blame, like a thyroid abnormality, which can also cause nausea. Either way, your doctor can counsel you on treating your symptoms.
And although it’s called “morning” sickness, the discomfort and nausea can happen any time of day. Still, there are some reasons it may be common in the morning, Dr. Dweck explains. For one, you may have low blood sugar in the morning, AKA hypoglycemia, which could cause nausea. Another is that increased stomach acid and reflux overnight can result in morning symptoms. And lastly, even something as simple as brushing your teeth when you wake up can trigger gagging.
What does it really feel like?
Nausea is pretty self-explanatory, but that’s not the only symptom. Dweck explains that you may develop an intolerance to certain foods and a sensitivity to specific smells, as well. Unfortunately, this applies even to things you used to love. “Some women love the smell and taste of coffee before they're pregnant, and somehow, all of a sudden, they just have such a distaste for the aroma or the taste,” she notes.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s also indigestion. Some women may find themselves eating just a small amount of food and feeling super full and nauseated.
The symptoms vary from person to person. Robyn, 37, who’s currently pregnant and experiencing morning sickness, hasn’t been throwing up, but has been experiencing frequent dry heaving. She typically makes parfaits for breakfast and sometimes uses bananas, which her husband loves. Recently, however, she tried to peel one and instantly started gagging. “Ever since, he makes his own parfaits,” Robyn mused.
Kathryn, 28, suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a type of severe morning sickness that typically requires medical intervention, during her pregnancy. You might remember Kate Middleton was diagnosed with this condition as well, and more recently, Amy Schumer. Hyperemesis can be incredibly disruptive to your daily life. Kathryn recalls having to work from home, as her vomiting was near continuous. “I constantly had a trash bag at my side and had to always have the windows down in the car,” she explained.” Luckily, hyperemesis is rare, and only affects 0.3 percent of pregnant women. Although uncommon, it is serious. Many who suffer from it, like Kathryn, can actually lose weight during their pregnancy and become dehydrated. Kathryn received IV infusions of medication and nutrients to keep her healthy, if not nauseated, until she delivered her baby.
How can you feel better ASAP?
While the more serious cases might require hospital visits, there’s a lot you can do to treat your symptoms at home. To treat nausea, Dr. Dweck recommends acupressure bands that you wear like a bracelet. “These little elastic bands have a little pressure point that hits a particular meridian on the wrist. Some of them were originally purposed for people traveling by ship who got seasick, but they kind of caught on for women who were having morning sickness,” she says.
Another strategy, Dr. Dweck explains, is to shake up your eating routine. Small, frequent meals can lessen your indigestion and nausea. Molly, 36, who is currently pregnant, keeps on-the-go packs of applesauce by her bed and even wakes up in the middle of the night to have one to avoid letting her blood sugar drop, which can trigger nausea.
Then there are the herbal approaches. Ginger isn’t just a myth, it can actually help an upset stomach, so don’t be shy about the ginger tea or chews. Dweck also notes that mint has anecdotally been shown to calm nausea, too. Kathryn used peppermint in her daily showers, which she said provided her some relief.
If at-home remedies aren’t helping, talk to your doctor. While most doctors will probably be conservative with prescriptions during the first trimester especially, they weigh the concerns for both you and your baby. If you’re losing weight and not able to supply enough nutrients for your baby due to vomiting, a doctor might prescribe an anti-nausea medication like Zofran, though it would not be the first line of defense. Most likely you might try a medication like Diclegis, an FDA-approved pill that contains vitamin B6, which as Dr. Dweck notes, helps decrease nausea.
As exhausting as morning sickness can be, at the very least, it’s good training for the sleepless nights that baby will surely bring.