It should come as no surprise that pregnancy affects your blood flow. Your blood cells are practically running an obstacle course these days, weaving in and around displaced organs and a swollen, growing uterus. Virtually all pregnant women can expect to have a few circulatory complaints, but taking precautions and monitoring your health in each trimester can help you avoid any serious blood-related complications.
In a healthy non-pregnant person, the blood makes an easy, continuous circuit, flowing from the heart to the rest of the body via arteries, then back to the heart through the veins. This is an involuntary process which many of us take for granted … until we become pregnant and the internal road map adjusts. Suddenly, there’s a lot more traffic! Blood volume increases dramatically (by nearly 50 percent) during pregnancy, and the blood cells are asked to perform new tasks: namely, filtering through the placenta to deliver the nutrients baby needs and take away the waste left behind.
With two bodies to nourish, your heart rate will go up to try to meet the demands, and your veins will relax to compensate. Because of this, your blood pressure should decrease through the first half of your pregnancy and then rise again throughout the second half. A nurse will take your blood pressure at each doctor’s appointment to make sure you’re on track. Talk to your OB-GYN about the symptoms you’re experiencing—circulation adjustments are sure to cause minor discomfort, but there are also more serious health threats to watch out for. It’s smart to do your part, but your doctor needs to be in the know too! Together, you can keep your circulatory system in check during your 40 weeks of rocking that bump.
Not so serious
Mild occurrences of these symptoms are totally normal during pregnancy, but that doesn’t make them any more enjoyable! Small lifestyle changes can make a difference and keep these side effects from becoming more sinister.
What it is: Excess fluid collects in your tissue, causing swelling, especially in the ankles and feet. The majority of pregnant women experience some edema during pregnancy (most commonly in the third trimester) due to increased water retention and blood flow changes. Note that edema is different from normal pregnancy weight gain.
What to do: Put your feet up when you can, exercise, cut down on your salt intake, and don’t cross your legs. Dress in looser clothing and shoes that won’t cut off your circulation, and try compression stockings for extra support—slip them on before you get out of bed in the morning to keep the blood from settling in your ankles and feet. (Bonus: Compression stockings can also help relieve the symptoms of varicose veins.) Keep your blood flowing by taking breaks from sitting to stretch and walk around, especially while traveling. (This can help with leg cramps too!)
What it is: There are many causes of occasional lightheadedness and dizziness during each trimester of pregnancy. One of them is low blood pressure.
What to do: Rather than jumping quickly to your feet from a sitting or lying down position, take your time and rise slowly. When you’re lying down at night, favor your left side as much as possible; lying on your back or right side can further compress the vena cava that carries blood from your lower half back to your heart.
What it is: Low blood pressure, anemia and hormonal changes can leave a mom-to-be feeling pretty pooped out a lot of the time. Taking care of your growing baby is hard work after all!
What to do: While there’s not much you can do about your hormones or the low blood pressure that comes with early pregnancy, making sure you get sufficient amounts of rest will help. Eating an iron-rich diet (or taking iron in your prenatal vitamin) will keep your red blood cell count up and often take care of pregnancy-induced anemia. Of course, healthy eating and exercise will boost your energy, during pregnancy and anytime.
Cause for concern
These higher-risk blood-related maladies can threaten your health and your baby. Do what you can to avoid them, but if they do strike—and sometimes there is nothing you can do to avoid that—work with your doctor to keep them in check.
Hypertension (gestational or chronic)
What it is: High blood pressure. Gestational hypertension is induced by pregnancy, chronic hypertension is not. Either variety carries the risk of hindering baby’s growth or causing placental abruption, premature birth or stillbirth.
What to do: The higher your blood pressure, the greater the risk involved. Stay in close contact with your OB-GYN or perinatologist—she will watch your condition closely and prescribe baby-safe medication if needed. At home, you can control your blood pressure somewhat by keeping a healthy diet including very little sodium; if you haven’t already given up alcohol and cigarettes, do so at once!
What it is: If your doctor finds that you have high blood pressure along with protein in your urine later in pregnancy, you’ll be diagnosed with preeclampsia. This is a very serious condition that restricts your blood flow, potentially harming your organs and limiting your baby’s growth.
What to do: Listen to your doctor. Depending upon the seriousness of your condition, you might be hospitalized or put on bed rest, and you may need to deliver your baby early. Don’t blame yourself for your illness—in most cases, preeclampsia is not preventable. Instead, keep calm and focus on doing what you can to keep yourself and your baby stable.
What they are: When clots travel to the lungs, they can be fatal, and blood clots in the placenta are a threat to your baby; however, if you experience clotting in your legs or pelvis, it may be treated before it can cause any harm.
What to do: Do your best to prevent blood clots by staying active with mild exercise, and make sure to take walking breaks during air travel, road trips and long days at the office. If you experience persistent pain, redness or tenderness in your leg, you may have developed a clot—talk to your doctor right away so she can diagnose and treat it. Pregnancy-safe anticoagulants are commonly prescribed for clots.