Those pregnancy hormones can leave you saying hurrah (bigger boobs!) or
waaah (acne, again). The wackiness is worth it: Estrogen and friends are working overtime to support the little one growing in your belly.

pregnant woman
Credit: Amy Postle

Now that you're preggo, you probably feel as if you're living in a brand-new body. Whether you're soldiering through all-day morning sickness or enjoying a model's radiant complexion, you can thank the flow of hormones coming from your ovaries (in the first trimester) and later from your placenta. One rule of thumb: "There are no rules!" says Rick Burney, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Madigan Healthcare System in Tacoma, Washington. "Every woman's experience is unique because every woman's hormone balance is different." It even varies pregnancy to pregnancy -- which may be why your first was easy and this one is, well, not. Take a peek at what's happening head to toe.

"I've got shampoo-commercial hair!"

You sure do, mama. Sky-high estrogen (your levels can rise up to 1,000 times above normal) prolongs the growth phase of hair follicles, Dr. Burney says. While it may seem like your locks are growing faster, they're actually just falling out less. But due to an increase in androgens, you may have more hair all over, including a furrier belly, face, or even nipples. Sigh. It's temporary, but if you want to defuzz, opt for tweezing or waxing: Nothing is absorbed into the skin; the same can't be said if you use bleach or depilatories. If you're game for maintaining your Brazilian, you may be more uncomfortable during the treatment and have more redness after, Dr. Burney says. With additional blood flowing to your pelvic region, it's common to be extra sensitive. (Which can be a good thing...more on that later!)

"I'm glowing!"

That sweet rosiness in your cheeks is likely due to your ramped-up blood volume, a by-product of soaring estrogen levels. Blood volume increases steadily until about the middle of your third trimester, Dr. Burney explains. By the time you welcome your baby, you'll have more than five liters of blood -- that's about 30 to 50 percent more than non-moms-to-be. You need the boost to support your growing peanut, but in fact, scientists think the rise came about in part to protect moms from losing too much blood during delivery.

"Ack! Acne again?"

If you're seeing spots, you may be particularly affected by the male hormones (aka androgens) coming from the fetus and your adrenal glands, says Bruce R. Carr, M.D., professor of reproductive endocrinology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Both sexes produce them, so you're not necessarily in the clear if you're having a girl. Androgens tend to increase oil production, which can clog pores and usher in acne. Keep your skin clean with a gentle cleanser, but avoid any products with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, says Valerie Callender, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "Safety studies have not been done in pregnant women," she says. Anything that contains retinols is also off-limits: High doses of these forms of vitamin A can harm an unborn baby. Instead, treat any pimples with products that have glycolic acid, Dr. Callender says. If your flare-ups are severe, ask your doc about prescription options, such as topical erythromycin, clindamycin, or azaleic acid, all of which are considered safe for pregnant women, Dr. Callender says.

"My skin's splotchy."

Estrogen can also leave another calling card: melasma, or the mask of pregnancy. The skin across your forehead, nose, and cheeks may darken, as may your moles and freckles, says Dr. Carr. Some women also develop splotches on their arms or other areas exposed to sun. This is all because estrogen may rev up production of melanocyte-stimulating hormone, which regulates skin pigmentation. The discoloration typically fades a few months after you give birth or finish nursing. Till then, you can keep it in check by shunning the sun and using sunscreen with at least SPF 30. (Dr. Callender suggests Aveeno Positively Radiant Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30; Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock SPF 55; and La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Lotion.) Try different makeup and concealers to even out your skin. Dr. Callender is a fan of mineral-based lines, such as Jane Iredale, which act as a physical barrier against the sun. Still speckled a few months into momhood? Check in with your derm, who may recommend treatments such as topical hydroquinone, azaleic acid, chemical peels or microdermabrasion.

"Just call me Snuffleupagus."

Feeling congested without any other cold or allergy symptoms? You may have rhinitis of pregnancy. That's the fancy name for when nasal membranes swell due to hormonal changes, triggering congestion. Plus, the extra blood flow now expands the tiny arteries and veins in the nose, so it's no surprise your sniffer can't do its job. Ease symptoms by drinking plenty of fluids (at least eight glasses a day), sleeping with your head elevated, and using a saline nasal spray. Running a cool-mist humidifier near your bed can help too.

"Cleavage? Me?"

Oh, how the girls will grow! By delivery day, you could easily go up a couple of cup sizes. The increased blood flow estrogen and progesterone trigger engorges the blood vessels (don't be surprised if your breasts start to look veiny); then, of course, your milk glands and ducts begin to develop, which contributes to fullness. The hormones can also lead to swelling, sensitivity, and pain. Invest in well-fitting, supportive bras and a bra expander to extend their life as your rib cage fills out. You'll likely have to shop a few times before the baby's born, and again afterward if you plan to nurse.

"I miss my a.m. (or p.m.) BM!"

Pregnancy gums up the works. As many as 40 percent of moms-to-be become constipated at some point, Dr. Burney says. Progesterone slows "intestinal motility" -- doctorspeak for the digestive process. For regular bowel movements, drink up (yes, those same eight glasses), aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber-rich food a day, and stay active. Exercise can stimulate your bowels, so as long as you're having a healthy pregnancy, 30 minutes of activity three to five days a week can make a difference. Even a stroll with your partner and pup counts.

"My body aches."

Along with muscle-loosening progesterone, the hormone relaxin is flooding your cells, especially in the third trimester. One of relaxin's main jobs is to loosen the joints in the birth canal so they can open and flex as Baby makes her way through. But the equal-opportunity hormone relaxes all of your joints, which means that everyday wear and tear can take a faster toll on your body. What's more, as your posture changes due to your burgeoning bump, lower-back aches can become a bother. If you can, try swimming, which is especially helpful in relieving back pain, says Diane Ashton, M.D., deputy medical director of the March of Dimes in White Plains, New York. Prenatal massages from a certified therapist can give relief, as well as smart moves like wearing low-heeled, supportive shoes and giving yourself permission to rest a little each day.

"My taste in food has totally changed."

Don't stress over the wackadoo things you Must Eat Now -- or the everyday staples, like your favorite grilled chicken sandwich, you fear you'll never enjoy again. Intense cravings and nausea may be related to your surging levels of HCG, a hormone produced by the placenta. HCG kick-starts progesterone production, which your body needs for a developing pregnancy. Levels tend to peak around ten weeks, Dr. Burney says, so by your second trimester, you may not be sending your guy out for chocolate-glazed doughnuts at 2 a.m. anymore.

"I'm fussier than my 2-year-old."

If you don't have mood swings, we may have to ask you to check your pregnancy test! Out-of-the-blue crying jags and totally undeserved outbursts at your hubby for forgetting the bananas (or whatever it is today) are practically programmed into your noggin. "The rapid change in hormones affects neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate mood," Dr. Ashton says. Rides on the emotional roller coaster tend to be especially intense during the first trimester, when hormones are rocketing, and they often return again in the third, she says. Biology aside, keep in mind that being pregnant and having a baby is a life-changing experience in the most wonderful -- and stressful -- ways. So cut yourself a little slack. Do what calms you: Exercise, turn in early, meditate, kvetch to your partner. There's no one silver bullet, but keep trying till you find what works for you. If, however, you feel your mood swings are interfering with your life, or you're starting to lose interest in things you used to get a kick out of, check in with your doctor.

"My sex drive is turbocharged!"

Oh, mama! Thanks to that increased blood flow mentioned earlier, the skin and muscles of your perineum, vulva, and vagina are supersensitive now and ready for action -- possibly lots of it. As long as you have the green light from your doctor, grab your partner (or go it alone), hop in the sack, and get your O on!

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American Baby magazine.

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