Why Food Can Be Your Best Friend in the First Trimester

Throughout the nine months of pregnancy, there are certain periods when particular organs or tissues develop called “critical windows.” The first trimester of pregnancy is loaded with these critical windows of development. During these periods, proper nutrition is especially important as risk for damage to these organs or tissues is increased. But for most of us, the last thing we want to think about during the first trimester is food, thanks one of the less pleasant aspects of pregnancy: morning sickness.

Morning Sickness and How to Relieve It with (of All Things) Food!

Whoever coined the term “morning sickness” was clearly never pregnant, because, unfortunately, you can have it morning, noon and/or night! Morning sickness is the feeling of nausea, with or without vomiting, that many women may experience while pregnant. The specific causes of morning sickness are debated and not fully understood, although hormones, psychological factors and slowed digestion may play a role. The majority of women experience some morning sickness during early pregnancy. In fact, a recent study found that almost 70% of American women suffer from some form of it. Often starting between weeks 4 to 6 and peaking between weeks 8-12 of gestation, nausea and vomiting may be quite problematic for some women. A minority (about 1.2%) may experience a severe form of morning sickness, called hyperemesis gravidarum, when vomiting occurs every day and can lead to a greater than 5% loss of pre-pregnancy body weight. This more severe form of morning sickness may cause you to become nutrient deficient, dehydrated, and prevent you from gaining enough weight (not to mention make you feel awful), which in turn may lead to potential harm to your baby, such as a low birth weight or preterm delivery. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: though about one in five women may continue to experience symptoms beyond the 20th week, in most cases, symptoms of morning sickness tend to improve by week 16.

If you are experiencing morning sickness, you know how difficult it can be to constantly feel like you’re about to throw up and not be able to function like you used to just a few weeks ago. But most importantly, you might be concerned about your baby. Is he or she getting enough nutrients if I’m constantly nauseous and am having trouble eating or I’m vomiting? How can I relieve my nausea and hold food down? Fortunately, there are a few natural remedies you can try to improve the way you feel.

Let Food Be Thy Medicine: Using Food to Cope With Morning Sickness

Change Up Your Eating Pattern.

Try to eat several small meals (aim for about 6 per day) slowly instead of larger meals because a full stomach can trigger nausea and vomiting. Similarly, an empty stomach can make you feel sick, so try not to go too long between meals. It might even be helpful to keep a snack handy. Speaking of which, having a snack, such as a banana or crackers, even before getting out of bed may also help.

Become a Food Detective.

Try to figure out which foods you can tolerate without getting nauseous. If you find that hot foods trigger nausea, go with cold foods instead, as their smell is not as intense and may be easier to handle. Avoid greasy or fried foods, as they can both trigger nausea from the smell as well as cause it after eating, since fats are difficult to digest. Try to go for low-fat, protein-rich foods, such as eggs, lean meat, or boiled beans, and try to take in more liquids than solids. Additionally, try salty liquids, such as sports drinks with electrolytes, in small volumes (preferably half an hour before or half an hour after you eat so that you avoid having a full stomach). Choosing cold, carbonated, and slightly sour liquids may also help, so if you start feeling nauseous, try sipping on a cool, carbonated beverage, such as Ginger Ale or lemonade (it may be helpful to always keep a few cans in the fridge). Eliminating coffee, spicy and smelly, high-fat, very sweet or very sour foods and choosing more bland, low-fat, salty or dry foods, such as crackers, pretzels, or toast, instead may also help to alleviate symptoms of morning sickness.

The Power of Ginger.

Ginger is the single non-drug intervention for treating nausea and vomiting recommended by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. It is thought to help improve symptoms by stimulating your digestive tract motility and the flow of saliva, bile, and gastric secretions. Several studies have shown that women reported reduced nausea (but, unfortunately, not vomiting) when given ginger compared to a placebo. Overall, ginger has been recognized as safe for use during pregnancy, effective in alleviating nausea, and is recommended if you’re experiencing morning sickness. No detrimental consequences to the mother or the baby have been noted with ginger use in small quantities. However, it is important to note that the maximum safe dose of ginger, as well as ginger and other herb interactions, are unknown. Thus, you should avoid consuming it in high doses or in combination with herbs and should ideally stick to ginger tea or other forms of ginger that provide small amounts of it.

Be Sure You are Getting Enough Vitamin B6.

In addition to the many benefits of vitamin B6, this vitamin has also been shown to be effective in alleviating the nausea associated with morning sickness and may even be as effective in treating nausea as ginger. Make sure that you get enough of the vitamin in your diet (1.9 milligrams per day), and if you’re concerned that you’re not getting the required amount, or if you want to try it as a nausea-alleviating agent, talk to your doctor about adding a vitamin B6 supplement (if you’re taking a prenatal vitamin, be sure to check the package for the vitamins included first as B6 might already be in there!).

Final thoughts on morning sickness

If you are experiencing morning sickness – whether mild, moderate, or severe – talk to your doctor and start by trying the natural interventions described here as your first line of defense. If these approaches don’t help, or if you have a severe form of morning sickness, your doctor may consider prescribing you a medication. There are safe medications for use in pregnancy which have proven to be effective in alleviating both nausea and vomiting.

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Dr. Nicole Avena, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor Neuroscience at Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology, Princeton University. Dr. Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition throughout the lifespan. She received her PhD from Princeton University, followed by postdoctoral training at The Rockefeller University in New York City. Her research has been honored by groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY, and The Doctors, as well as other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, and many other periodicals. Dr. Avena is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau. She has the #2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, How Sugar Affects Your Brain.

Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook and Instagram, and her website.

What to eat when you're pregnant

*This blog was adapted from Dr. Avena’s book, What to Eat When You’re Pregnant.