When most of us think about our bodies, we think about the parts that make them up: arms and legs, fingers and toes or internal organs like the heart and lungs. What we often don’t think about is the complex system of glands that make up the endocrine system. But if you want to become pregnant, stay pregnant and deliver a healthy baby, this not-much-discussed system can play a powerful role.
The endocri ne system is made up of glands, such as the pituitary and thyroid. Some of these glands make hormones and release them into the bloodstream. From there, the hormones travel to receptors on cells throughout our bodies, where they play a very important role in what those cells do, or don’t do. So if one of your goals for 2014 is to become pregnant and deliver a healthy baby, you’ll need a healthy, well-balanced endocrine system.
First things first
First, to become pregnant, you need a healthy pituitary and thyroid. “The pituitary gland is the master hormone regulator,” explains Dr. Lindsay Harrison, an endocrinologist with Texas Diabetes and Endocrinology. “The pituitary gland regulates the ovaries and it needs to be working correctly in order for women to ovulate. Also, the thyroid plays a very important role in your ability to become pregnant.” But even if these two glands are working correctly and you become pregnant, the course of that pregnancy will still be impacted by your endocrine system.
The thyroid connection
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), thyroid hormone plays a critical role during pregnancy, both in the development of a healthy baby and in keeping the mother healthy. Thyroid hormones affect a wide range of things including metabolism, brain development, heart and nervous system functions, breathing and menstrual cycles. During pregnancy, according to NIH, thyroid hormone is critical to the normal development of the baby’s brain and nervous system. But many women can either have too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism).
“If your thyroid hormone is low (hypothyroidism),” reveals Dr. Harrison, “it can lead to first trimester miscarriages or developmental delays in children after delivery.” Dr. Harrison recommends getting your thyroid levels checked at your first pre-natal appointment, particularly if you are over 30, overweight or have a family history of thyroid problems, since any of these can increase the likelihood of thyroid issues. Uncontrolled hypothyroidism during pregnancy can cause preeclampsia, anemia, low birth weight and stillbirth, according to the NIH.
Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) during pregnancy can cause many of the same problems, including preeclampsia, miscarriage and low birth weight. But it can also cause congestive heart failure and premature birth, according to NIH. And both mother and baby can have problems with hyperthyroidism after birth.
If a mother has uncontrolled hyperthyroidism or makes antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland, her baby can have a rapid heart rate and poor weight gain, says NIH. And an enlarged thyroid can press on the windpipe and cause breathing problems for the baby.
“Mom can also have problems with the thyroid after delivery,” explains Dr. Harrison. “You can develop postpartum thyroiditis and have high thyroid levels for one to two months after delivery. This can make you lose weight and feel anxious, shaky and heat intolerant.”
From too much thyroid hormone, you can then swing to too little thyroid hormone postpartum. “This can be treated with medication and usually lasts a few months, but 20 percent of women will remain permanently hypothyroid. Even if it resolves, it is likley to recur during a subsequent pregnancy,” adds Dr. Harrison.
A problem with insulin
While many people may be unaware of the thyroid’s role in a healthy pregnancy, more people have heard of gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes involves another better-known hormone, insulin. to the American Diabetes Association
(ADA), we don’t know what causes gestational diabetes. But when you have gestational diabetes, hormones created by the placenta to help the baby develop now make it hard for the mother’s body to use the insulin that the pancreas manufactures. “Gestational diabetes occurs in about five to 10 percent of pregnancies,” says Dr. Harrison. “If you are more likely to become diabetic because of individual risk factors, then you are also more prone to develop gestational diabetes. And one of the problems with gestational diabetes can be preeclampsia.”
If you’ve developed gestational diabetes, your baby may be large and have problems with low blood sugar after birth. According to the ADA, your baby is also at a higher risk for breathing problems. “Gestational diabetes can also recur in the next pregnancy,” cautions Dr. Harrison, “and about 40 percent of those who develop gestational diabetes will go on to develop Type 2 diabetes. If you develop gestational diabetes, it’s important to follow-up with your doctor and get screened for diabetes post-partum.”
A healthy start
While many of these hormone-related problems cannot be prevented, you can increase your chance of a healthy pregnancy by working to improve your health before you become pregnant. “If you have diabetes, you need to have it very well controlled to become pregnant,” advises Dr. Harrison. “And for all pregnancies, it’s important to be healthy before you get pregnant. That means having a healthy weight and exercising regularly.”
By taking care of yourself before you become pregnant, you increase the likelihood that you – and your baby – have a healthy start to a new life.
Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.