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Make room for baby

The changes that a mom’s digestive system undergoes during pregnancy.

MAY 2013

Some women are fortunate enough to breeze through their pregnancies; glowing and feeling fabulous. Unfortunately, that isn’t true for everyone. The list of pregnancy complaints is long but each is, for the most part, a mild and quite normal part of pregnancy.

There are good reasons for the many discomforts you may experience. In addition to the physical stress of simply carrying a growing baby, some pregnancy hormones change the way your body works. The levels of two hormones in particular—progesterone and relaxin—gradually increase during your pregnancy.

They work to make your muscles, ligaments and vessels soften so they can stretch. They allow your stomach, intestines, bladder and many other organs in your body to move and accommodate your baby. It’s the softening and stretching of these parts that also cause many of the changes and discomforts women experience in pregnancy.

Because the risks of most medications in pregnancy aren’t known, they’re generally not recommended as the first line of treatment for mild discomforts. It’s good to know that there are some effective non-medical options available. Good nutrition, hygiene and regular gentle exercise will go a long way to prevent or alleviate many of these symptoms.

Below are some of the changes that may affect an expectant mother’s digestive system:

• bleeding gums

• constipation

• hemorrhoids

• indigestion or heartburn

• nausea

Bleeding gums

Bleeding gums can have a number of causes. The most common—pregnancy gingivitis—is caused by hormonal changes that affect the blood vessels, making them more spongy and prone to leaking. It used to be said that a woman loses a tooth for every child she had. Luckily, that isn’t true these days, as long as you use good basic dental hygiene practices. It’s important to address bleeding gums promptly with regular gentle brushing and daily flossing.

Left alone, gingivitis can progress to a more serious condition called periodontitis, which affects the underlying bone and supportive tissue. It’s this condition that would cause you to lose a tooth. In addition, women with periodontitis have been found to be more likely to have their baby prematurely.

Bleeding gums could also be caused by anemia, indicating low iron levels in your blood—a common complaint in pregnancy—or, rarely, other blood disorders such as von Willebrand's disease, which makes you prone to bleeding because of your blood not clotting properly.

Another possible reason for bleeding gums could be the presence of a benign or non-cancerous skin growth called a pyogenic granuloma. Starting small and growing to an average of two centimeters in diameter, this red, brown or blue-black growth is rare. It generally disappears once the baby is born. If not, it’s possible to have it removed.

What you can do:

• Good oral hygiene practices are very important in pregnancy—brush and floss regularly.

• Maintain a diet rich in iron and vitamin C.

• See your dentist if regular brushing and flossing do not resolve the problem.

• See your OB-GYN if you think you may have any underlying condition that is causing your bleeding gums.

• A doctor can advise you on the best approach with a pyogenic granuloma.


The hormone progesterone slows digestion, and this naturally slows the rate at which you eliminate waste from your bowels. In addition, your intestines are being compressed by your growing baby, which can affect its efficiency.

What you can do:

• Eat little and often.

• Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.

• Drink plenty of fluids.

• Take regular, gentle exercise to help increase the rate at which you process and use food, and to help keep your bowel moving.


Hemorrhoids are veins in the anus that form a balloon in which blood pools. They’re just a form of varicose veins caused by the poorer blood return that comes with the lower blood pressure and softening veins during pregnancy, and compression from the baby's head on the pelvic and leg veins. Hemorrhoids are made worse by constipation.

What you can do:

• Minimize constipation (see above section).

• Avoid deep squatting positions, which place pressure on hemorrhoids and make them worse.

• Do regular, gentle exercise to improve your circulation.

Indigestion and nausea are also common problems experienced by pregnant women. Find out more about these and what you can do to combat them in the May issue of HealthToday.

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