The main culprits
“Your body’s producing hormones at levels you’ve never experienced before and they’re all whizzing round your system like wildfire,” says independent midwife Eleanor May-Johnson. “Is it really any wonder that on top of all the physical changes you’re going through, you feel up then down, happy then tearful, elated then furious – all in the same day?”
Those rampaging hormones are vital for everything from preparing your body for labour to bonding with your baby. You’ve got oestrogen, progesterone and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) to thank for everything from mood swings to morning sickness. But you’ve also got them to thank for your baby – without them, it would be impossible to get pregnant.
“HCG really gets things going. Your body starts producing it when a fertilised egg implants, and the concentration in your system can double every three days,” explains GP Dr Jeni Worden. “It’s the hormone that pregnancy tests look for, and the one that gives all your other hormones the green light to go into overdrive.” Experts believe the hCG is to blame for all those mornings spent revisiting your breakfast, that metallic taste in your mouth, and the fact you need to pee every 15 minutes. “The good news is hCG production slows down at 12–14 weeks, when your placenta takes over, so you should start to feel better,” says Eleanor.
You’re probably no stranger to good old oestrogen and progesterone. After all, in your pre-pregnancy days they caused those impossible-to-ignore pre-menstrual symptoms. “Pregnancy is a bit like having PMT on steroids,” says Jeni. “Oestrogen’s a real multi-taster. It makes your boobs sore as it’s stimulating your milk glands; it helps your womb to grow and maintain a baby-friendly lining, and makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight.”
But progesterone is the real don’t-mess-with-me hormone. “It can have you in floods of tears one minute, throwing things the next. It can knock your libido, too,” says Jeni. And it doesn’t stop there. Essential as it is, progesterone is to blame for more of pregnancy’s less-desirable side effects. We’ve all heard about the pregnancy glow and if you’re lucky, around the second trimester your skin will start to look radiant. But for many pregnant women, pesky progesterone causes a flare up of the teenage acne you thought you’d ditched years ago.
The good guys
They might leave your pelvis aching, your skin greasy and your bowels refusing to budge, but hormones do some pretty special things too. Relaxin is worth its weight in gold when it comes to pushing out your baby, as it relaxes your joints, muscles and ligaments so they stretch during delivery. Prolactin ensures you produce milk for your baby, and oxytocin stimulates contractions and gives you that rosy, happy glow.
“That rush of love you feel whenever your baby kicks is down to oxytocin,” says Eleanor. Even when hormones are making you feel awful, it’s important to remember they’re all doing vital jobs. If you’re really struggling with symptoms, talk to your midwife or GP. Knowing why you want to strangle your partner for not taking the rubbish out can be half the battle to overcoming that urge to explode.
“Take constipation, for example. It’s so common, but when you know it’s because progesterone is telling your uterus not to contract and having the same effect on your bowel, it’s more understandable,” says midwife Denise Linay from the Royal College of Midwives. “Knowing why a hormone is a positive thing for pregnancy but not for other parts of your body can help make symptoms more bearable.”
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Beating hormone hell
So, short of stocking up on family-sized boxes of tissues, is there anything you can do to cope with your raging hormones? It’s impossible to be logical when you’re shattered, so try to get plenty of rest and be upfront about how you’re feeling, suggests Jeni. “Talk to your partner, friends, colleagues… most people will understand where you’re coming from and it helps if you’ve explained why you’re snappy or sad,” she says.
“You can’t get off the rollercoaster, but you can calm the effects,” says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “Try and do some gentle aerobic exercise at least three times a week. In the short term, it’ll give you an endorphin boost to smooth your moods and, in the long term, it lowers your metabolic and pulse rates a little.” This makes it harder for a little niggle to turn into a full-blown meltdown, says Linda. “Think of it as lengthening a short fuse,” she adds.
Don’t underestimate the power of a few deep breaths, either. “Focusing on your breathing helps you assert a little bit of control. If you’re feeling wobbly lipped, or about to lose your rag, breathe in through your nose and hold it. Feel the breath in your body then let it out nice and slowly,” says Linda. “Then breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth very slowly three times. It won’t stop the hormones, but it might help manage your reaction.”
Finally, try to remember the wonderful prize that awaits you in a few months’ time (and if all else fails grab some chocolate).
Watch out for the pre-baby blues
At least 10 per cent of mums-to-be are thought to experience antenatal depression. Speak to your midwife if you feel any of these symptoms:
- Permanently down or on-edge
- Tired but unable to sleep
- Isolated or anxious
- If you feel you have no interest in life
“A lorry carrying lambs to market pulled up next to me at the traffic lights. I could hear them bleating and the thought that they were soon to be lamb chops finished me off. I had to pull over I was bawling so much.”
Jennifer Todd, 36, from Hertfordshire, mum to Stella, 3, Audrey, 1, and 34 weeks pregnant
“You kind of go a little cuckoo. You’re stepping back from yourself and watching this insane monster in front of you that’s you, and you want to stop her but she’s funny to watch.”
Anchorman actress Christina Applegate, mum to Sadie, 6 months, admits her pregnancy hormones sent her a little bonkers!