Welcome back for part 2 of the Naturally Healthy Hormones for Women blog series. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.
While every woman and her experience with hormones is unique, for many post-pubescent women, hormones are rarely thought about until something causes a hormonal shift — like pregnancy for example.
Growing up, I was blessed with fairly stable hormones. Sure I experienced occasional moodiness, and a lower back ache was a sure cue that my period was right around the corner. Other than that, I never had any hormonal conditions that disrupted my life — until pregnancy, that is.
It wasn’t until I became pregnant that I learned just how much hormones could fluctuate and how important they were.
Whose Body Is This?!
Being a nurse, I knew a good bit about the physical and emotional changes that were heading my way as soon as I became pregnant, but it wasn’t until I actually became pregnant that I understood these changes first hand.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I fully expected to have a very healthy pregnancy, and I was bound and determined to do everything I could to stay in good health and avoid many of the pregnancy ailments that are common to this stage of life. That meant eating a healthy diet, taking my prenatal vitamins, minimizing toxins in my home, getting daily exercise, managing stress where possible, so on and so forth. Much of the same things you’d do at any point in living a naturally healthy lifestyle.
However, what I couldn’t control (or anticipate) were the hormonal changes my body would undergo — changes that would happen whether I wanted them to or not.
While all physical and emotional changes that occur in a woman’s body during pregnancy are the result of hormones, in this article, we’ll look at some characteristic changes some women go through as a result of pregnancy hormones. I’ll even be sharing some natural DIYs remedies along the way that can help support the body through these pregnancy-related hormonal changes as well.
Hormonal Changes During Pregnancy
Pregnancy is a time of many changes in the body — almost all of which are triggered by fluctuating hormones.
On the upside, your period stops, your skin glows, your hair gets thicker, and your libido increases. Oh, joy!
On the downside, your blood volume increases, your joints begin to loosen, your glandular system is working overtime, and your digestion slows. You’re tired and hungry all. the. time. Your breasts, butt, and belly get bigger. You eventually have to pee 50 times a day, and your mood can change in the blink of an eye.
Oh, the joys of pregnancy! Thankfully, the ups and downs are all worth it because a miracle is happening inside of you. A new life is forming. A life that has a purpose and will, hopefully, positively impact the future.
So let’s talk about some of the most common pregnancy hormones and the changes that occur because of them.
hCG || Morning Sickness
When you become pregnant, a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) begins to increase in the body. This hormone is responsible for several changes in the body, from stopping ovulation to placental growth, to fetal organ development, and more (Hill, 2018). While there’s no hard evidence to support this assumption, it is believed that increased levels of this hormone are what’s responsible for morning sickness.
Thankfully, there are natural ways to help the body through bouts of morning sickness. One way is to use the herb ginger (Zingiber officinale). Ginger works in a couple of ways to ease morning sickness. First, its volatile oil content helps it to relax spasms that can contribute to nausea in the gut. Next, Dr. Gerard Mullin, one of the nation’s top experts on the relationship between food and gut disorders, says that ginger works on the same receptor in the brain as the anti-nausea drug, Zofran (Forȇt, 2017).
As you can see, ginger is an excellent herbal ally for morning sickness, and the good news is that it’s safe for pregnant women when taken in moderate doses (Gardner & McGuffin, 2013). Most herbalists recommend women to take no more than 2 grams of ginger a day. More than that on a consistent basis can thin the blood too much.
One of my favorite ways to use ginger to ward off bouts of nausea when I was pregnant was to sip on ginger soda or eat a ginger chew or two. Both of these recipes can be kept on hand and used as needed.
- 1 ounce of freshly grated ginger root
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup raw honey
- 8 ounces of carbonated water
- Grate ginger and weigh it using a kitchen scale. You’ll need 1 ounce.
- Place water and grated ginger in a small saucepan. Bring the water to a boil. Once boiling, immediately lower the heat until you have a gentle simmer going. You want to reduce your water by half, which can take anywhere from 15-20 minutes.
- In the end, you should be left with a ½ cup of water.
- Using a stainless steel sieve, strain the ginger from the water. Pour this water into a glass jar and let it cool to room temperature.
- Once cooled, add ¼ cup of raw honey to ginger water. Mix well. Store this ginger syrup in a glass jar in the fridge until ready to use.
- When ready to use, fill a drinking glass with ice. Pour your ginger syrup over the ice, filling your glass ¼ full. Top the last ¾ of your drink off with your carbonated water. Stir and enjoy!
Because this syrup contains water, it must be refrigerated. It should stay good for 3-6 months as is, but if you double the amount of honey, it will remain good for close to a year.
It can be tricky gauging when the water in step two has reduced by half. Feel free to strain it to see if it’s ready. If you have more than ½ a cup, add it all back into the saucepan for a few more minutes. If you end up having less than ½ a cup, there’s no need to worry. Merely pour enough clean water into your ginger decoction to equal ½ cup, and you’re all set to move on!
Progesterone || Heartburn & Constipation
The outer coating of the egg, called the corpus luteum, originally produces progesterone; however, once the placenta is fully developed, it takes over as the site of progesterone production. Progesterone is responsible for maintaining pregnancy, preventing mom’s immune system from attacking the new fetal cells, strengthening uterine muscles in preparation for labor, and preventing lactation (Society for Endocrinology, n.d.). On the downside, it also tends to relax smooth muscle function which can lead to things like heartburn, slowed digestion, and constipation.
Let’s take a look at heartburn first.
A couple of different things trigger heartburn in pregnancy — specifically a growing belly and the relaxed, smooth muscles of the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach.
There are several ways you can try to minimize heartburn in pregnancy. First, you can sip on small amounts of water and eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day to keep the stomach from being too full at one time. You can also try to stay upright for 30-60 minutes after eating to let gravity do its thing and prevent pressure on the abdominal sphincter. You can also stay away from foods that tend to bring on heartburn such as greasy foods, foods that contain caffeine, or spicy foods.
If you’re trying these things, yet nothing is working for you, talk to your obstetrician or midwife about using a small amount of apple cider vinegar (ACV) when symptoms of heartburn arise. Apple cider vinegar is thought to neutralize pH in the stomach, soothing symptoms of heartburn in some individuals (Yeh, 2015). One of my favorite ACV products to use for heartburn is Maty’s All Natural Acid Indigestion Relief.
Now let’s address constipation.
During pregnancy, constipation can be a real issue, but there are some natural things you can do to minimize the chances of this happening.
First, you can make sure you stay hydrated. Drinking water and herbal teas are one of the best ways to prevent constipation any time, let alone during pregnancy. Next, you can increase your fiber intake by eating whole grains, beans, and fibrous vegetables. Lastly, you can make sure your diet is full of healthy fats — coconut oil being one of them.
Below, you’ll find a recipe for “Move It, Move It” balls from my Herbal Remedy Recipes ebook. This recipe combines herbs, fiber, and healthy fat to help soothe any constipation issues mom may have while pregnant.
“MOVE IT, MOVE IT” HERB BALLS
Recipe makes 4 days worth.
- 4 tablespoons slippery elm powder (sustainably sourced) (Ulmus rubra)
- 2 tablespoons Indian gooseberry powder (Phyllanthus emblica)
- 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
- 1 tablespoon ground chia seed
- 4 tablespoons raw honey
- 2 tablespoons nut butter
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- Combine powders in a bowl and mix well.
- Add honey, nut butter, and coconut oil. Mix until well combined.
- Roll into ½ inch balls and coat with a small amount of cinnamon powder to keep balls from sticking to each other.
- Label and store in a glass container.
Take 8 balls a day. If constipation continues, call your obstetrician or midwife for further direction.
Estrogen || Hyperpigmentation & Nasal Congestion
Like progesterone, estrogen is another key pregnancy hormone, and it too is produced by the corpus luteum followed by the placenta. Estrogen is a key player in fetal organ development, and it also increases the uterus’s sensitivity to oxytocin in time for delivery (What To Expect, 2016). Unfortunately, though, estrogen is also thought to be the cause of pregnancy-related hyperpigmentation (or melasma) and nasal congestion.
Let’s look at hyperpigmentation first.
During pregnancy, melasma is referred to as chloasma gravidarum or “the mask of pregnancy.” This hyperpigmentation can appear as brown or gray-brown patches on the face, usually in a symmetrical pattern. While there is little that can be done for this condition during pregnancy, there are some things you can do to decrease your chance of having a severe case of it.
First, the liver metabolizes excess hormones, so keeping the liver healthy and in good working order may help with hyperpigmentation because a healthy liver will be able to efficiently metabolize any extra estrogen, if needed, during pregnancy. While it’s not recommended to take herbs or supplements that stimulate liver detox while pregnant, you can take herbs that provide gentle liver support during pregnancy. Eating bitter spring greens such as dandelion in a salad or taking low doses of herbal bitters before meals with herbs that are safe during pregnancy (such as chamomile) can aid not only in liver health but digestive health as well. Milk thistle is another hepatoprotective herb that can be used in low doses during pregnancy to support liver health.
Next, simple skin care such as facial scrubs and sunscreen may help with hyperpigmentation as well. Facial scrubs help to exfoliate the skin by gently removing dead skin cells from the surface. Gently buffing the skin can help to reduce the appearance of darkening skin if done regularly. Hyperpigmentation is also believed to be worsened by exposure to UV light from the sun. Whether you wear hats, use makeup with sun blockers in it, or apply sunscreen directly to your face, keeping the sun off your face as much as possible may also minimize this condition somewhat.
Now let’s take a look at how estrogen contributes to nasal congestion.
Estrogen is one hormone responsible for an increase in blood flow to the mucous membranes (What To Expect, 2016), which leads to swelling of the tissues of the nasal cavity making it more difficult for mom to breath easily.
While there isn’t anything you can do about your estrogen levels at this point (other than wait it out), there are some things you can do to ease the inflammation in your nasal tissues.
Essential oils and sinus rinses are the first two things that come to mind — only not combined (because that needs to be said, right?!).
Essential oils containing menthol are thought to minimize the feeling of congestion by tricking the brain into thinking that it is easier to breathe by triggering a cold sensation, which is processed as indicating more airflow. A 2003 edition of Current Allergy and Asthma Reports supports this theory, reporting the recent discovery of a menthol receptor located on the sensory nerves that modulate the cooling sensation (Eccles, 2003). Studies have also shown menthol to be beneficial for respiratory complaints due to its ability to inhibit smooth muscle contraction in the airways (Ito et al., 2008).
Another natural practice you can try to ease nasal congestion due to pregnancy hormones is to use an herbal sinus rinse that incorporates anti-inflammatory, astringent, and demulcent herbs. Astringent herbs work alongside anti-inflammatory herbs to help tighten and tone weepy tissues and to ease inflammation by supporting chemical processes in the body (Marciano, n.d.). Demulcent herbs can help offset the astringent herbs if they’re too drying to the tissues. Most sinus rinses also call for sea salt or some form of saline as it’s believed to help moisturize dry membranes and soothe inflammation as well (WebMD.com, 2016).
Below, you’ll find a recipe for an herbal sinus rinse to ease nasal congestion during pregnancy. This blend features herbs with anti-inflammatory, astringent, and demulcent properties.
HERBAL SINUS RINSE FOR CONGESTION
Makes enough for 1 rinse.
- 8 ounces just-boiled water
- 1 tablespoon chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita)
- 1 tablespoon plantain leaf (Plantago spp.)
- 1 teaspoon comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- Combine water and salt, and mix until salt is dissolved.
- Add herbs to water. Cover, and let steep 15 minutes before straining through an unbleached coffee filter or a cotton cloth.
- Allow water to cool to a comfortable level before using in a neti pot or a sinus rinse bottle.
Use sinus rinses 1-2 times a day, as needed.
Cortisol || Potential Early Miscarriage
While all people experience the effects of cortisol on a regular basis, cortisol is considered a pregnancy hormone since cortisol levels significantly increase in mom and baby towards the end of pregnancy (McLean & Smith, 2001). While this is a good thing at this time, increased cortisol levels are thought to have a negative impact on early pregnancies. Although studies vary in their findings, it’s believed that high cortisol levels in early pregnancy could potentially contribute to early miscarriages (Nepomnaschy et al., 2006).
Even though there is no hard evidence to support this potential link, it is wise to consider it. With this in mind, relaxation and stress reduction methods may be beneficial for women who are considering becoming pregnant, especially those who experience high levels of stress in their lives on a regular basis.
Relaxation can come from a variety of different sources such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, massage, and herbs. When it comes to herbs, relaxing and sedative nervines can be useful in helping relax the mind and body. While many herbs are contraindicated during pregnancy, herbs such as chamomile, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata L.), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) are all considered safe during pregnancy (Gardner & McGuffin, 2013) and can help in this area. Chamomile and passionflower can be used in tea form, and valerian is most often used in tincture form. All of these herbs have been shown to promote feelings of calm and relaxation and have been used efficiently in cases of anxiety (Amsterdam et al., 2009).
Below is a recipe for a chamomile tisane (tea). Chamomile, as long as there are no allergies to it, is safe to drink on a regular basis. It
- 1-3 teaspoons chamomile flowers
- 8 ounces boiled water
- Combine chamomile and just boiled water in a glass teacup. The more chamomile you use, the strong the flavor and effect your tisane will have.
- Cover and let steep 3-5 minutes.
- Strain liquid through an unbleached coffee filter.
- Sweeten as desired, and enjoy.
3-4 cups a day as needed.
Whether you’re currently pregnant, are considering becoming pregnant, or know someone who’s pregnant — hormones will play a significant role during this time of life.
While the experience of being pregnant isn’t the same for everyone (nor is each pregnancy the same for an individual), the hormonal fluctuations women experience during this time of life can be navigated in a healthy, natural way. Knowing about the changes that are happening in your body, what’s to be expected, and how to keep yourself as healthy as possible during this time will all work towards making this season of life an enjoyable one.
Learn Even More About Natural Hormone Health For Women
I hope you enjoyed this post on pregnancy hormones and you come back for our posts on postpartum and menopausal hormones in the coming weeks.
Don’t miss a single article in this blog series! You can find them all right here, or you can sign up to receive email notifications below, so you don’t miss a single post in this series (or the surprise at the very end!).
Eccles, R. (2003). Menthol: Effects on nasal sensation of airflow and the drive to breathe. [Abstract]. Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, 3(3):210-4.
Forȇt, R. de la. (2017). Alchemy of herbs. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.
Gardner, Z., & McGuffin, M. (2013). American Herbal Products Association’s botanical safety handbook (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Hill, M.A. (2018). Human chorionic gonadotropin. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Human_Chorionic_Gonadotropin
Ito, S., Kume, H., Shiraki, A., Kondo, M., Makino, Y., Kamiya, K., & Hasegawa, Y. (2008). Inhibition by the cold receptor agonists menthol and icilin of airway smooth muscle contraction. Pulmonary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 21(5):812-7. doi: 10.1016/j.pupt.2008.07.001.
Marciano, M. (n.d.). Anti-inflammatory. [Online Article]. Retrieved from https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/herbal-actions/a/anti-inflammatory-2/
McLean, M. & Smith, R. (2001). Corticotrophin-releasing hormone and human parturition. Reproduction, 121: 493–501. Retrieved from http://www.reproduction-online.org/content/121/4/493.full.pdf
Nepomnaschy, P., Welch, K.B., McConnell, D.S., Low, B.S., Strassann, B.I., & England, B.G. (2006). Cortisol levels and very early pregnancy loss in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(10): 3938–3942. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0511183103
Society for Endocrinology. (n.d.). You and your hormones: Progesterone. [Online Article]. Retrieved from http://www.yourhormones.info/Hormones/Progesterone.aspx
WebMD.com. (2016). Natural allergy relief: Saline nasal sprays. [Online Article]. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/allergies/saline-spray#1
What To Expect. (2016). Estrogen and progesterone. [Online Article]. Retrieved from https://www.whattoexpect.com/pregnancy/pregnancy-health/pregnancy-hormones/estrogen-progesterone
Yeh, Z. (2015). Is apple cider vinegar effective for reducing heartburn symptoms related to gastroesophageal reflux disease? [PDF]. Retrieved from https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/166181/content/Yeh_asu_0010N_15671.pdf