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Great Expectations

Pregnancy can be a joy, but it can also bring uncomfortable symptoms. Try these natural ways to relieve them.

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My friend Margot envisioned pregnancy as a blissful time of exuberant good health. This was not the case. On the fifth week of her pregnancy, after a modest meal of scrambled eggs and toast, she lurched from the table and bolted for the bathroom to put her head in the toilet, where she stayed for the better part of six months. My friend Gabriella suffered a particularly nasty episode of hemorrhoids-and wet her pants every time she sneezed. And during my own pregnancy, my heartburn was so evil, it felt as if I were on an IV drip of battery acid.

Greeting card commercials and glossy magazine ads makepregnancy seem universally carefree and graceful, a nine-month period spent drifting through lush, grassy fields in a diaphanous white gown with a crown of daisies on your head. It leaves us ill-prepared for the small and ugly realities of pregnancy-the heartburn and hemorrhoids, the webs of stretch marks exploding across your burgeoning belly, the terror of toxins that have even the bravest of souls recoiling from hair color and canned tuna. Being pregnant isn’t for the faint of heart. But you can make it easier. Try some of the following natural solutions for pregnancy woes and make expecting great.

Heal your heartburn.
Heartburn is uncomfortable, but some remedies can harm your baby; new research suggests that acid-blocking drugs used in pregnancy may increase the risk that your child will develop asthma. To avoid heartburn, eat small, more frequent meals; avoid spicy, fried, and fatty foods; and limit food two hours before lying down or going to bed. Homeopathic remedies can ease indigestion and soothe heartburn. Some women (myself included) swear by blackstrap molasses; folk medicine says the thick texture helps coat, soothe, and protect the esophagus. Try taking a teaspoon after meals, increasing to a tablespoon as needed. You also need a significant amount of calcium for your growing baby, so don’t hesitate to take calcium carbonate chewables. Finally, deglycyrrhizinated licorice chewables can soothe the irritation caused by acid. Take one or two a few minutes before meals or as needed.

Ease morning sickness.
No one knows exactly why most women experience some nausea during pregnancy, but it’s thought that the increase in hormones relax stomach muscles and slow digestion. Acupuncture, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises may help. Studies have also suggested that taking 10 to 25 mg of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), three times a day, may ease morning sickness. And a number of studies have noted the effectiveness of ginger. One note: because taking more than 200 mg of vitamin B6 per day can increase the risk of nerve damage, stick to the dosage suggested in studies, and check with your health care provider. Sometimes, injectable B6 will work when oral doesn’t. Finally, some women get relief from injectable vitamin K, which you can ask your doctor about if other methods don’t work.

Maintain your veins.
Varicose veins happen when the growing uterus exerts pressure on the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood to your legs and heart. Varicose veins are most common in the legs, genitals and rectum; when they occur down there, we call them hemorrhoids. They’re hereditary, so you may not be able to prevent them entirely. But you can reduce their appearance. Don’t cross your legs when you sit, don’t sit for more than an hour at a time, and get plenty of low-impact exercise. Some women swear by the herb butcher’s broom-and research supports it. Other varicose-vein-fighting nutrients include bioflavonoids, which you can get from purple foods such as blueberries.

Yoga postures that elevate your feet can help; try Viparita Karani, a simple pose in which you extend your legs up a wall. To do it, stack folded blankets or a firm bolster against a wall, to reach a height of 6 to 10 inches-higher if you’re more flexible, lower if you’re stiff. Then maneuver yourself (this is the hardest part for a pregnant body) so that you are lying on your back with your sit bones almost touching the wall, your legs extended up the wall, and the blankets or bolster supporting your lower back. Breathe deeply for 5 to 10 minutes before coming out of the posture.

The facts about fish.
It’s often high in mercury, but fish is one of the best sources of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that’s especially important during late prenatal and early postnatal development. In fact, a study last year suggested that skimping on seafood during pregnancy could increase the risk of poor verbal skills, behavioral problems, and other childhood development issues. The jury’s still out, but seafood is probably safe if you eat it wisely. Shoot for 12 ounces of seafood a week; focus on sardines and wild-caught Alaskan salmon; limit tuna to 6 ounces a week; and avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish. For an updated list of the best (high in omega-3 fatty acids, low in environmental contaminants) and worst (high in mercury or PCBs) seafood, visit

Grow a healthy baby.
You know the basics: no alcohol, cigarettes, paint fumes, or drugs. But even herbal remedies can cause uterine contractions, which may lead to miscarriage in the first trimester, and premature labor and delivery. Even during labor, caution is advised. Some herbs commonly used during labor, such as black cohosh or blue cohosh, can cause uterine contractions that may reduce blood flow to the fetus.

To protect against neural tube defects and cleft palate, folic acid is particularly important in the first 12 weeks. Food sources include spinach, beans, orange juice, and fortified grains. You should also take a food-based supplement containing 800 mcg of folate throughout your pregnancy.


Sleeping on your left side during the third trimester of pregnancy provides the best blood flow to the kidneys, uterus, and fetus.

Color me, naturally.
Some studies suggest a link between the use of hair color and increased risk of lymphoma and bladder cancer; others suggest an association between dying your hair during pregnancy and increased risk of certain childhood cancers. Other studies, and most doctors, say it’s safe to dye, but do we want to take the risk? If you can’t stand it, wait to dye until the second trimester, then use the least-toxic brand you can find. To further minimize risk, apply dye as far from the roots as possible, don’t leave it on any longer than needed, rinse your scalp thoroughly, and color infrequently.

Kegels count.
Vaginal delivery stretches the vaginal walls and the pubococcygeus (PC) muscles, also known as the pelvic floor. The possible results: urinary incontinence, hemorrhoids, uterine prolapse, and diminished sexual enjoyment.

Kegel exercises can help. Named after Arnold Kegel, MD, the gynecologist who invented them in the 1940s, Kegels strengthen PC muscles. Here’s how to do them:

  • Locate your PC muscle by stopping the flow of urine when you’re on the toilet, or by inserting a finger in the vagina and squeezing until you feel pressure around your finger.
  • To do Kegel exercises, squeeze PC muscles and hold for a count of 5 seconds, the release and relax the muscles for 5 seconds. Count how many times you can do a Kegel before your muscles begin to tire; this is your baseline.
  • Once you’ve found your baseline, do Kegels at least three times a day; increase repetitions every few days.

Feel better.
Exercise prevents constipation by accelerating intestinal movement; relieves aches and pains by toning muscles and activating lubricating fluid in joints; reduces the risk of varicose veins; soothes stress and anxiety; prepares your body for birth; and releases endorphins, chemicals in the brain that make you happy. And while there’s no proof of this, some women swear that exercise prevents stretch marks by keeping skin toned.

Swimming and water aerobics are easy on the joints, and offer you a rare opportunity to feel weightless during pregnancy. Other options include dancing, yoga, Pilates, and brisk walking. Design an exercise plan that combines cardio (aerobic), strength, and flexibility, for 30 to 45 minutes, most days of the week. Maybe the best reason to move: you’ll stay happy and healthy nine months long.