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With the swollen feet, extra pounds and aching back, there are plenty of not-so-fun side effects when you’re expecting. But did you know that there are many pregnancy perks that can benefit your long-term health? Let’s take a look at how.
You’re probably all too familiar with the numerous aggravations—morning sickness, heartburn, fatigue, stretch marks, and leg cramps, to name just a few—that plague expectant moms. Sometimes pregnancy may seem like little more than an unpleasant means to a happy ending.
Yet, believe it or not, a baby isn’t the only good thing you get out of childbearing. Those extra hormones not only encourage fetal development, but they also have an effect on your well-being. Some can actually improve your health during and after pregnancy. What’s more, childbirth and breastfeeding offer some healthful benefits of their own.
Overall, most women find pregnancy to be a positive experience, studies show. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, a professor of child development at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, surveyed expectant mothers, and the majority of women reported only a handful of negative symptoms during their pregnancy: nausea and fatigue early on and discomfort and some difficulty sleeping toward the end. More often, “women reported feeling very energized and positive during the second and third trimesters,” reports Brooks-Gunn.
Of course, those feelings may be easy to forget on days when getting out of bed is an effort. But rest assured, wonderful changes are taking place in your body. And you’ll experience some of the benefits for a long time to come.
During pregnancy, a woman and her baby exchange a small number of cells via the placenta, and some of those fetal cells remain in her body, a phenomenon called microchimerism. (Microchimerism can also result from blood transfusions and transplants, and it can occur between fraternal twins.)
Reduced breast cancer risks
Your risk of developing this disease is related to your exposure to hormones produced by ovaries (endogenous estrogen and progesterone). The longer the exposure, the higher the risk of developing breast cancer.
Since pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce a woman’s number of menstrual cycles over her lifetime, she has a decreased exposure to endogenous hormones. For the same reasons, reproductive factors like early onset of menstruation or late onset of menopause have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
According to Marsha Davidson, executive director of the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, “Breast tissue is constantly changing with hormone levels, and a woman who has been pregnant has had a different hormonal history than one who has not. Studies show that women who have been pregnant at the age of 30 or younger have consistently been found to have a lower risk.” Though a number of studies have proven this, the biological causes are not yet fully understood.
Reduced risk of gynecological cancers
Recent studies report that pregnancy may be an effective protector against breast and ovarian cancers. The more pregnancies you go through — and the younger you start having babies — the greater the effect.
In addition, some research has found that breastfeeding for more than three months can also lower your risk of certain cancers. “At this point, researchers have nothing more than theories concerning the relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer,” says Kevin Hughes, MD, assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.
One hypothesis, based on the fact that ovulation ceases during the nine months of pregnancy, suggests that women who ovulate less are less likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Another more complicated theory suggests that breast tissue that never goes through pregnancy may be more prone to cancer.
Pregnancy can also lessen your risk of ovarian and endometrial (uterine) cancer. Haim Abenhaim, an OB/GYN and maternal fetal medicine specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, explains that, typically, every month the ovaries go through a process where cells divide (cell division can make cells susceptible to cancer), but during those nine months of pregnancy and the time you breastfeed, the ovaries get a break.
“The more pregnancies you have, the less cell division takes place over your lifetime, thereby lowering the risk of developing endometrial and uterine cancers,” says Abenhaim.
Less painful periods
Sooner or later after childbirth and breastfeeding, your menstrual cycle will resume. But here’s a welcome side effect: You may have fewer bothersome cramps. Some women even find that menstrual pain ceases altogether after pregnancy and childbirth. This pain reduction is a well-known phenomenon, but no one knows for sure why it occurs. One theory is that childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus. Prostaglandins, hormones that direct the uterus to contract during labor, also play a role in monthly menstrual pain. The upshot? Fewer pain-receptor sites, fewer cramps.
Some women who have suffered through heavy or painful periods before getting pregnant can actually see an about-face post-childbirth—especially those who have endometriosis.
“With endo, there are a lot of structural things that are wrong in the pelvis,” says Toronto naturopath Pamela Frank, “and some of those improve when everything—the ligaments, the tissue, the adhesions—relaxes to deliver the baby.” Unfortunately, not all women experience this kind of relief.
Overall improved health
“Pregnancy can have a cascade effect on women,” says Toronto midwife Shâdé Chatrath, who educates moms-to-be on improving their well-being by eating right, exercising and having regular PAP tests after giving birth. She’s seen many of her clients stick with the healthy habits they adopted while they were pregnant. “Once you have a baby, you tend to have a new outlook on life,” she says. “You make health a priority.”
Pregnancy causes many women to institute all kinds of positive health changes and drop bad habits. For instance, experts say pregnancy is one of the most effective inspirations for quitting smoking.
And research has also shown that one group of women in particular, those with diabetes (Types I and II), make good use of pregnancy to learn how to better manage their disease. Often these new habits become shifts to a healthier lifestyle.
As the ultimate do-it-yourself project, pregnancy can be a unique confidence builder. Some women find their body image actually improves with pregnancy, says Mae Shoemaker, past president of the International Childbirth Education Association. Women with low-risk pregnancies, she says, “realize that they’re still capable of doing lots of activities, even with the extra stress on their body.”
Childbirth has been compared to marathon running, for good reason. Some studies suggest that women gain a newfound sense of their own strength after going through labor and delivery. At minimum, pregnancy and childbirth can change your perspective for the better. They force you to be more aware of the big picture. When you’re living with the knowledge that your body is creating a whole new person and delivering him or her into the world, you’re less likely to sweat the minor details.
Did you know?
Pregnancy and breastfeeding have direct effects on breast cells, causing them to mature so they can produce milk. The hypothesis is that the differentiated cells are more resistant to mutating into cancer cells than those that haven’t undergone this transformation.