You're probably all too familiar with the numerous aggravations—morning sickness, heartburn, fatigue, stretch marks, and leg cramps, to name just a few—that plague expectant moms. Sometimes pregnancy may seem like little more than an unpleasant means to a happy ending.
Yet, believe it or not, a baby isn't the only good thing you get out of childbearing. Those extra hormones not only encourage fetal development, but they also have an effect on your well-being. Some can actually improve your health during and after pregnancy. What's more, childbirth and breastfeeding offer some healthful benefits of their own.
Overall, most women find pregnancy to be a positive experience, studies show. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, a professor of child development at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, surveyed expectant mothers, and the majority of women reported only a handful of negative symptoms during their pregnancy: nausea and fatigue early on and discomfort and some difficulty sleeping toward the end. More often, "women reported feeling very energized and positive during the second and third trimesters," reports Brooks-Gunn.
Of course, those feelings may be easy to forget on days when getting out of bed is an effort. But rest assured, wonderful changes are taking place in your body. And you'll experience some of the benefits for a long time to come.
For many women, sex improves for at least part of pregnancy. "During the second trimester, there's increased blood flow to the pelvic area," says Christiane Northrup, MD, an ob-gyn and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam, 2002). The result is greater sensitivity during sex and a greater likelihood of orgasm. In fact, some women feel an orgasm for the first time in their lives during midpregnancy—and some will even enjoy multiple orgasms.
Every woman's experience is different—feeling fatigued and self-conscious about your weight may make you want to send your partner far, far away -- that's normal too. If you're not up for sex, create intimacy by asking your partner to brush your hair, massage your feet, or rub your back or shoulders. But with luck, pregnancy hormones as well as androgens (which are male hormones produced by both male and female fetuses) will kick in, heating up your libido. Enjoy feeling frisky for as long as you can! Don't fret about sex hurting the fetus. As long as your pregnancy is uncomplicated, feel free to indulge—and, if you're worried, ask your doctor for the green light.
Pregnancy causes many women to institute all kinds of positive health changes and drop bad habits. For instance, experts say pregnancy is one of the most effective inspirations for quitting smoking. "It's also a great motivator for getting fresh air and exercise," says David Acker, MD, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. And research has also shown that one group of women in particular, those with diabetes (Types I and II), make good use of pregnancy to learn how to better manage their disease. Often these new habits become shifts to a healthier lifestyle.
Sooner or later after childbirth and breastfeeding, your menstrual cycle will resume. But here's a welcome side effect: You may have fewer bothersome cramps. Some women even find that menstrual pain ceases altogether after pregnancy and childbirth. This pain reduction is a well-known phenomenon, but no one knows for sure why it occurs. One theory is that childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus. Prostaglandins, hormones that direct the uterus to contract during labor, also play a role in monthly menstrual pain. The upshot? Fewer pain-receptor sites, fewer cramps.
Recent studies report that pregnancy may be an effective protector against breast and ovarian cancers. The more pregnancies you go through -- and the younger you start having babies -- the greater the effect.
In addition, some research has found that breastfeeding for more than three months can also lower your risk of certain cancers. "At this point, researchers have nothing more than theories concerning the relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer," says Kevin Hughes, MD, assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. One hypothesis, based on the fact that ovulation ceases during the nine months of pregnancy, suggests that women who ovulate less are less likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Another more complicated theory suggests that breast tissue that never goes through pregnancy may be more prone to cancer.
"Peppermint ice cream from Baskin-Robbins has always been one of my favorites, but it never tasted quite so good as when I was pregnant," says Sarah Sandell of Kalamazoo, Michigan. "I made a point of knowing when they had it in the store so I could always get my own personal pint."
Pregnancy seems to enhance your perception of taste, most likely because your sense of smell increases. Yes, that same nose that made morning sickness worse in early pregnancy can make food taste especially delicious later on. Some experts credit "radar nose" to high levels of estrogen. One theory for why it develops is that it may help you instinctively avoid dangerous substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and secondhand smoke.
As the ultimate do-it-yourself project, pregnancy can be a unique confidence builder. Some women find their body image actually improves with pregnancy, says Mae Shoemaker, past president of the International Childbirth Education Association. Women with low-risk pregnancies, she says, "realize that they're still capable of doing lots of activities, even with the extra stress on their body."
Childbirth has been compared to marathon running, for good reason. Some studies suggest that women gain a newfound sense of their own strength after going through labor and delivery. At minimum, pregnancy and childbirth can change your perspective for the better. They force you to be more aware of the big picture. When you're living with the knowledge that your body is creating a whole new person and delivering him or her into the world, you're less likely to sweat the minor details.
Sarah McCraw Crow is a mother and writer who lives in Concord, New Hampshire.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your won health or the health of others.