Pregnancy Nausea: The Role of Hormones are Revealed in New Study

Paula James-Martinez

Pregnancy Nausea: The Role of Hormones are Revealed in New Study

Table of contents

  • Intro
  • The GDF15 Hormone and Morning Sickness: Connecting the Dots
  • Unraveling the Genetic Connection
  • A Glimpse into the Future: Can Morning Sickness be Curbed?
  • Navigating Morning Sickness Naturally: Tips for Now
  • The Bottom Line

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In a recently released joint study by the University of Southern California and the University of Cambridge, researchers have zeroed in on a hormone that holds the key to understanding morning sickness during pregnancy - GDF15.

The GDF15 Hormone and Morning Sickness: Connecting the Dots

GDF15, a hormone naturally present in the body, takes center stage during pregnancy when the placenta ramps up its production. The study states that "We confirmed that higher GDF15 levels in maternal blood are associated with vomiting in pregnancy and HG." This surge in GDF15 levels is associated with the familiar feeling of nausea, commonly known as "morning sickness".

The reaction to this hormone varies among women, ranging from those who experience no nausea to others grappling with the severe and incapacitating hyperemesis gravidarum, often requiring hospitalization.

The recent study reinforces GDF15's role in pregnancy sickness and sheds light on how a woman's sensitivity to the hormone dictates the severity of her symptoms. Notably, women exposed to lower pre-pregnancy levels of GDF15 tend to experience more intense symptoms.

According to Professor Sir Stephen O'Rahilly, MD, co-director of the Wellcome-Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge, who led the collaboration, women more sensitive to the hormone tend to suffer the most. Understanding this sensitivity provides a crucial clue for potential preventive measures.

Unraveling the Genetic Connection

The study points to genetics as a key factor influencing a woman's sensitivity to the GDF15 hormone. A rare mutation in the gene responsible for GDF15 production leads to abnormally low hormone levels, putting women at a higher risk of experiencing hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancy.

This genetic interaction between the mother and fetus offers insight into why some women may experience severe symptoms in certain pregnancies but not in others. Further research is underway to validate these findings.

A Glimpse into the Future: Can Morning Sickness be Curbed?

The research team's next step involves exploring whether exposing women to GDF15 before pregnancy can mitigate or prevent nausea and vomiting, potentially revolutionizing the treatment landscape.

Initial efforts are being made to investigate the safety of metformin, a drug known to increase GDF15 levels, in individuals with a history of hyperemesis gravidarum.

One of the leading members of the research team Dr. Fejzo, who suffered with personal experience in hyperemesis gravidarum, expresses hope that these findings will pave the way for effective treatments, sparing future mothers from the ordeal she and many others have faced.

Navigating Morning Sickness Naturally: Tips for Now

While medication based on the study's hormonal insights  for the most extreme cases of pregnancy nausea are still in development, there are natural ways to alleviate symptoms at home. For mild and temporary bouts of nausea and vomiting, consider:

  • Consuming sufficient protein, including protein powders such as collagen peptides can support protein intake in women with aversions or nausea like Needed’s Prenatal Collagen Protein.
  • Opting for smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Exploring acupuncture or acupressure.
  • Prioritizing fresh air and rest.
  • Hydrating gradually throughout the day and considering electrolyte supplements like Needed’s Hydration Support.
  • Supplementing with B6 and ginger for nausea control. The dosage of B6 is 25 mg three times a day (75 mg per day). Some perinatal supplement companies have identified the importance of B6 for supporting pregnant women with nausea and vomiting. Needed Prenatal Multi offers a dose of B6 that is especially supportive, including mood imbalance and nausea.

The Bottom Line

Understanding the cause of morning sickness will hopefully lead to break-throughs in treatment. But there are natural ways you can help elevate symptoms for now.

For those facing severe and persistent symptoms, medical intervention, including intravenous fluids and other therapies, is essential. If you are struggling please contact your practitioner. 

To read the study yourself:

Fejzo, M., Rocha, N., Cimino, I. et al. GDF15 linked to maternal risk of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. Nature (2023).

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Paula James-Martinez, Filmmaker and Editorial Director

Paula James Martinez is a writer, filmmaker, and women's health advocate. She is the director and producer of the documentary Born Free, which investigates the truth about birth and maternal health America. Sits on the boards of non-profit organization "The Mother Lovers" and "4Kira4Moms" to raise awareness of the US maternal health crisis, and co-hosts the parenting podcast "Scruunchy."