I Experienced Severe Morning Sickness—New Research Finally Pinpoints the Cause

Source: Canva
Source: Canva

New research out this week pinpoints the cause of the dreaded vomiting and nausea—commonly referred to as “morning sickness”—that many women experience during pregnancy. According to a study published in the Nature journal, severe morning sickness (also known as hyperemesis gravidarum) is caused by a single hormone—GDF15. The research findings could lead to better treatments for severe morning sickness, including rare, life-threatening cases. While many are overjoyed at this breakthrough, rightfully so, they are also questioning why something so widely experienced by pregnant people is only now getting the time of day.

As this news has circulated, women are flooding the comments on news sites and social media with their personal stories of severe morning sickness, their frustration that women’s health issues are so understudied, and their hope for treatment in the future. Even the co-author of the study, geneticist Dr. Marlena Fejzo, shared in an article for the New York Times that her healthcare providers dismissed her severe morning sickness until she was ultimately hospitalized and miscarried at 15 weeks. 

As someone who has experienced intense morning sickness with both of my pregnancies, I’m among those feeling relief, frustration, and hope. I do not plan on becoming pregnant again, but I am so relieved to know that other women will have more possibilities to help with their severe morning sickness and finally have data to point to if their employers, partners, or healthcare providers brush off their symptoms. Keep reading for more about the breakthrough research as well as what to know about severe morning sickness, including what it’s like to have it.

What the New Research Found

So, what did researchers discover exactly? This breaking study confirms prior research pinpointing a hormone called GDF15. The amount of GDF15 circulating in a woman’s blood during pregnancy, as well as her exposure to it before pregnancy, drives the severity of her symptoms. This specific hormone, GDF15, is released by many tissues in response to stress, and receptors for the hormone are clustered in a part of the brain responsible for feeling sick and vomiting. 

Researchers also noted that women who may suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) had significantly higher GDF15 levels during pregnancy than did those who had little to no symptoms. 

The findings offer hope for better prevention and treatments for HG. As noted in the New York Times, “patients with HG could one day take medications to block the hormone’s effects in the brain, as long as clinical trials were to find the drugs safe in pregnancy. Such medications are still being tested in trials of cancer patients with a loss of appetite and vomiting also caused by GDF15.”

Hyperemesis Gravidarum
Source: Canva

The Difference Between Hyperemesis Gravidarum and Morning Sickness

Up to 70 percent of women report experiencing nausea during pregnancy, but around 2 percent experience severe morning sickness. According to the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of hyperemesis gravidarum include:

  • Severe nausea
  • Vomiting more than three times per day
  • Losing more than 5 percent of your pre-pregnancy weight
  • Not being able to keep food or liquids down
  • Dehydration
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Peeing less than normal
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Fainting
  • Headaches

Hyperemesis gravidarum also made headlines in 2012 when the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was hospitalized with the condition.

Struggling With Severe Morning Sickness in Both of My Pregnancies

When I was pregnant with my first child, I struggled with morning sickness for around four months. I was nauseous all the time and could barely keep down crackers. I ended up losing around six pounds within the first trimester because I was throwing up so often. I hoped when I got pregnant with my second child, things would be different, but unfortunately, I struggled with morning sickness again, this time much worse.

From the beginning, I was intensely nauseous. Even just the thought of certain foods that I once loved was enough to physically make me gag, and I ended up on a “diet” of high-complex carbs—the only foods that didn’t make me sick. On some days, I literally would wake up and vomit the first thing in the morning, and on many nights, I would wake up and barely make it to the bathroom in time. As the months went on and my pregnancy progressed, so did my morning sickness. I was so sick from being nauseous and vomiting, I barely had any energy and could barely pull myself out of bed. I had headaches all the time and felt horrible. Most days, I would throw up at least three times, and one day, I actually threw up seven times. I could no longer handle the constant sickness and finally sought help from my doctor.

Luckily, they took me seriously and prescribed a medicine to help with the nausea. To be honest, I never sought help for my morning sickness during my first pregnancy because I didn’t like the idea of taking medicine while pregnant. But with my second, it became so unbearable there were days I was sitting in bed sobbing while my 4-year-old daughter consoled me.

What This Means for Future Prevention and Treatment

While I was lucky to have had a supportive doctor, many women have been dismissed with their constant ‘complaining’ and that it’s all in their heads and to just stick it out. While it’s still unclear when treatment will be available, this is an important first step, and I hope that in the not-so-distant future, women will not struggle to get the care they need and deserve.

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