We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: how pregnancy hormones affect your mood and body.
Q: I just found out that I’m four weeks pregnant (a good thing — my sweetie and I have been trying for six months!). Now that the whole “will it ever happen” stage is over, I’m realizing that while I’ve gotten over the stress of how hard it is to get pregnant, I’m a bit freaked about what I’m going to feel like for the next eight months. I mean, I went into an emotional tailspin on the pill, and I’m assuming cooking up a whole baby is going to involve way more intense hormonal changes. What can I expect? Will I turn into a moody monster? What will my body feel like?
A: Pregnancy. Something relevant to us all, since the person who birthed us went through it. This article is probably going to make you call up the person closest to you who has undergone this experience and give thanks — and that’s because the roller-coaster of emotions and body changes they went through during those nine months is unparalleled by anything ... except maybe puberty. Let's take a look.
Pregnancy Hormones: The Key Players
A bunch of hormones change levels during pregnancy. But three of these chemicals really alter their role in your normal cycle during these nine months. Let’s learn what they are, how they feel, and what they’re doing to help your body form a full-blown tiny human.
Human Chorionic Gonadropin (hCG)
First up in the pregnancy hormone lineup is hCG. This is the chemical that the pregnancy test you buy at your local pharmacy is looking for — which is why it’s often called “the announcer of pregnancy”. This hormone skyrockets starting when you get pregnant, doubling its levels every two days for the first 10 weeks of your pregnancy. That’s a huge change in levels really fast!
As the first hormone on the scene, hCG’s job is to let the rest of the body know that OMG YOU GUYS, THERE’S A TINY HUMAN COOKING! What that ends up looking like is sending messages to the ovaries to stop maturing eggs and to the uterus to ready itself to nourish a cluster of cells into a complete baby. HCG also triggers the other two key pregnancy hormones — estrogen and progesterone.
Progesterone is the hormone most prevalent during pregnancy. Always in your body, it’s produced by your corpus luteum, which is what’s left of your follicle inside your ovary, after it’s released its mature egg for the month. This chemical works to keep your uterus relaxed (it’s a muscle after all) and also helps your immune system get used to the foreign DNA in its system, also known as the fetus.
Estrogen is a group of hormones responsible for a bunch of things relevant to reproduction, including development of secondary sex characteristics in female humans (hello breasts and body hair), and the regulation of the menstrual cycle. It’s produced by the ovaries (if you have those) and also in smaller doses by the adrenal cortex (which is on top of your kidneys), testes (if you have those), and the fetus and placenta, if you are carting around one of those. During pregnancy, estrogen helps the growing fetus develop many of its organs, grows the placenta, starts the fetus’s hormone production, regulates the rest of the pregnancy hormones, and gets the breast tissue ready to lactate.
Pregnancy Hormone Mood Side Effects
OK, so your body is being flooded with hormones — what’s that going to feel like? It probably won’t shock you to know that it might be intense. That’s because changes to your hormone levels can affect your neurotransmitter levels, which are the chemicals in your brain that regulate your mood. Mood swings are super common during pregnancy, and can come in the form of depression and anxiety, or just more intensity of emotion overall. Both estrogen and progesterone are known to potentially cause moodiness and crying — if you’re sensitive to these chemicals.
For most people, these mood changes start at around the six to 10 week mark, chill out during the second trimester, and then come back with a vengeance at the end of the third trimester, when you’re about to give birth.
Pregnancy Hormone Bodily Side Effects
As if mood swings weren’t enough, the raised levels of hCH, progesterone, and estrogen can cause all manner of bodily side effects.
If you’ve ever seen a movie where someone is pregnant, you’ll know about the nausea that comes with growing a baby. This is often called morning sickness, although it can happen at any time of the day, because your body doesn’t care what time it is when it’s dealing with hCG, which is what scientists think causes this really unpleasant side effect. The good news is that this feeling usually reaches its peak in the eighth or tenth weeks and fades during the beginning of the second trimester. If this is happening to you, you can talk to your doctor about drug options to help with the nausea, or check out the whole host of natural remedy options out there — from herbal teas to vitamin B6.
Needing To Pee All The Time
HCG increases the amount of blood that flows to your pelvic area, which can cause you to need to pee all the time. Luckily, this usually goes away in the second trimester (only to come back when the baby gets big enough to push on your bladder, but that’s not hormone-related).
Getting Sick More Frequently
Remember how hCG helps your immune system become OK with the foreign DNA invading your body in the form of your growing baby? Well, it does that by suppressing your immune system — basically, weakening it so that it can’t fight your fetus and actually reject it. A weak immune system means ... you guessed it ... you’re going to get sick more often. If this is happening to you, let your doctor know — particularly before taking any medication that might hurt the baby.
In addition to catching every virus that comes your way, during pregnancy you can also experience a constant stuffy or runny nose. These symptoms are both because of the increased blood flow triggered by hCG, which irritates the mucous membranes in your nose. These swollen nose membranes can also cause you to snore. You can help your nose feel better with over the counter nasal sprays and a humidifier, as well as sleeping on your side. These will help your snoring too.
Feeling Really Tired
One of progesterone’s effects is as a soporific, which is the fancy word for something that makes you super sleepy. As your progesterone levels raise, so can your fatigue. Basically, it can feel like you’ve taken sleeping pills. Luckily, this side effect usually only lasts for the first trimester.
A Heightened Sense Of Smell
During pregnancy, your sense of smell becomes super strong. This is due to your raised estrogen levels. Most people report that this also turns them off to certain foods that they usually love, because the smell is just too much.
Increased & Different Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal discharge is a normal part of owning a vagina. It’s one of the main things that helps your vagina stay clean! During pregnancy, your discharge can take on a different look and feel than you’re used to. It can be milky-white and thick, or yellow and slimy-feeling, not have an odor, and there will be a lot of it. This is called leukorrhea, which is just the descriptor for getting a lot of vaginal discharge when you’re pregnant. It’s triggered by estrogen, and it’s totally normal. If it starts to smell bad or your vagina starts to itch, something else may be going on and you should talk to your doctor.
Constipation & Cramping
One of progesterone’s primary roles is to relax the smooth muscles in your body. Areas affected by this include your blood vessels, your uterus, and your bowels. During pregnancy, high levels of this chemical relax your bowel contractions so that everything moves through more slowly. This is meant to give your body more time to absorb every last bit of nutrients from what you’re eating — so you can feed your baby in addition to yourself. Unfortunately, this can result in constipation.
High levels of progesterone are also the reason why you might feel bloated, painful belly cramps, and have to fart a lot. To help this problem, increase the fiber in your diet, drink fluids, and exercise. And if things don’t get better, you can ask your doctor about a laxative.
Changes To Your Skin
The high levels of estrogen and progesterone can cause melasma, which is a common skin condition wherein your melanin (the color creating substance in your skin, hair, and eyes) gets out of control and you get dark patches on your body. On your face, this is called a “pregnancy mask” because it shows up on your mouth, cheeks, and forehead. Sometimes this facial discoloration goes away after you’ve had your baby, and sometimes it doesn’t. There are some treatments for discolored skin, but they tend to cost a lot.
Hyperpigmentation can also occur in your areola, making them darker. Some people think this is so your baby can find your nipple more easily. Whether or not that’s true, you may notice your areolas taking over your breasts more than they were before. Once you’re done breastfeeding, they will shrink back to their normal size, but in most people they will stay a bit darker than their former selves.
You can also experience skin tags, which are tiny skin growths that dangle off your regular skin. These usually crop up on your face and neck, around your breasts, under your arms, and around your groin area. These growths may be due to hormones, with another potential culprit the friction you experience when you gain weight during your pregnancy. Sometimes these go away after you give birth, and if they don’t, don’t panic — you can get them easily removed at your dermatologist’s office.
The Bottom Line
Hormones are powerful chemicals! Seriously, let’s all just take a moment to consider that just three chemicals getting pumped into your body in different levels than usual can make all these super weird things happen to you. And while this may seem like a lot to undergo for the purpose of having a baby, just think — you are growing an entire human. Inside your body. In only nine months. When I wrap my dome piece around that thought, hats off to you.
Images: Ryan/Flickr, Giphy