Morning sickness, heartburn, fatigue, stretch marks, varicose veins, leg cramps, back cramps, nasal congestion, moodiness, decreased libido, increased libido, confused partner, weird cravings. It’s no wonder most of my friends feel some trepidation at the prospect of becoming pregnant.
Don’t get me wrong. Bringing babies to life is stunningly less deadly than it used to be. Eighteenth-century English records report a maternal mortality rate of 10.5 mothers per a thousand live births, compared to 2014 World Bank data that cites a death rate of nine mothers per 100,000 live births.
Yet even by today’s modern medical standards, pregnancy can still be a downright nightmare—full of uncomfortable symptoms, hospital visits, medication, blood tests, and even months of prescribed bed rest. While we can agree that these women’s health issues are important to discuss—or might not be discussed enough—I’ve realized that the negative side effects predominantly take center stage in pregnancy narratives. We’ve heard our fair share of horror stories. Some are so traumatizing that they instill anxiety and fear in women who haven’t experienced being pregnant.
As a first-time preggo, I will say that I have been pleasantly surprised by pregnancy—it even comes with some perks! And no, I’m not talking about bigger boobs and strong, shiny hair (though those are nice bonuses). Besides creating a new little human, having a baby can be surprisingly good for your health, according to many recent studies. In fact, it turns out that the effects of pregnancy can far outlast your little one’s stay in utero. While we don’t all need to go out and get pregnant in order to save ourselves from cancer, as you’re taking your third trip to the bathroom one night or woefully missing those relaxing glasses of wine, consider these health benefits.
01. Instills Permanent Healthy Habits
When there’s a little person growing inside her, many women find themselves ready and willing to ditch ugly habits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Of women who smoked three months before pregnancy, 55 percent quit during pregnancy.” When you consider how addictive nicotine is, that’s a staggering statistic.
While many of these women relapse after about six months of having a baby (take for instance, the story of this woman who quit during each and every one of her four pregnancies before permanently quitting on her own), we can still argue that housing a growing human in one’s womb is a huge motivator for a woman to get her health in order.
Becoming pregnant doesn’t only inspire smokers. It inspires couch potatoes, too. “[Pregnancy] is a great motivator for getting fresh air and exercise,” says David Acker, M.D., chief OB-GYN at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I can attest to that. Since I’ve become pregnant, I’m more habitual about exercising (albeit, light exercise). Not only does it make me feel less achy, but I’ve also been told repeatedly from my doctor that it greatly reduces health risks such as gestational diabetes, one of the most common complications of pregnancy.
02. Lowers Risk of Breast Cancer
There’s a ton of ongoing research showing that pregnancy can help protect women from certain types of breast cancers. And, while scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact reasons why, there are sound hypotheses.
One recent theory presented by researchers at the University of Washington shows that pregnancy has the ability to produce cells that protect the mother from harmful diseases. Women who had been pregnant “were significantly less likely to have had breast cancer” when they adjusted for age, number of children, and history of miscarriage. They conclude that evolutionary biologists should take note because it supports “the concept of long-term fitness benefit through reproduction.”
Another study in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research indicates that women who have not been pregnant are at higher risk for developing breast cancer than women who have been pregnant. Their research indicates that breast-feeding has a direct effect on breast cell type, as “the breast attains its maximum development during pregnancy and lactation.” This indicates that breast cells “in these two groups of women might be biologically different or might exhibit different susceptibility to carcinogenesis.” In layman’s terms, breast tissue that doesn’t undergo the changes of pregnancy and breast-feeding may be more prone to cancer.
Whatever the reasons may be, overall, there seems to be much more positive research in the way of pregnancy and breast cancer than there is negative. Time and research will tell.
03. Lowers Risk of Ovarian Cancer
Pregnancy has also been linked to a decreased risk of certain ovarian cancers.
A 2002 study published in the Journal of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention reports that ovarian cancer risk is reduced by pregnancy. The findings are consistent with the theory that the transformation of ovarian cells “induced by pregnancy hormones may be the underlying protective mechanism.”
More recent research from Oxford University has found that “having a child lowers the risk of ovarian cancer, and the likelihood of developing the disease decreases with each further baby.” The Telegraph reports, “Women with one child had about a 20 percent reduction in risk compared to women without children. And the chance decreased a further 8 percent for each further child.” Scientists speculate that pregnancy prevents ovarian cancer because it stops ovulation for nine months, but they have yet to research why, exactly, less-frequent ovulation lowers the risk for ovarian cancer. But this is still encouraging news for pregnant women, whether they carry to term or not.
04. Protects Your Heart
Heart disease is responsible for one in every four female deaths—and it is by far the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. But according to a study published in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility in 2012, researchers discovered that women who had been pregnant at least four times were less likely to die of cardiovascular disease. The study followed 1,300 women in southern California during the 1980s, when the women were in their early seventies. Over a span of nineteen years, the researchers brought women for regular clinic visits, sent them annual questionnaires, and used death records to discover their cause of death.
As the years unfolded, they discovered that compared to the women who had never been pregnant, those who reported at least four pregnancies (not necessarily to full term) were 35 percent less likely to die of any heart or vascular disease. One theory indicates that the higher level of estrogen that pregnancy exposes a woman to has protective heart effects—it could counter the loss of estrogen during menopause, which can lead to heart disease.
If you’re not expecting to have a bunch of kids but still want to maximize your heart-related pregnancy benefits, consider breast-feeding. Another study in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology shows that “women with a single live birth who breast-fed for seven to twelve months were significantly less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.” Their conclusion notes that “increased duration of lactation was associated with a lower prevalence of hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in the blood)” as well.
Pregnancy is one of the most life-changing decisions any woman can ever make. And while this medical research might give moms-to-be some nice benefits to think about, we all know they pale in comparison to the gift of becoming pregnant, which really is a medical miracle all on its own. As Mariel Lindsey writes in Verily’s recent article “Motherhood Didn’t Ruin My Life, It Made It Better,” “I am now obligated to view the world through the passionately hungry eyes of a child who finds mystery and miracles in life’s seemingly mundane moments.” While there are no stats to prove it, that paradigm shift might be the biggest health benefit of all.
Photo Credit: Violet Short Photography