If You’re Eating for Two, Why Are You Vomiting?

One of the most common symptoms of early pregnancy in human beings is nausea and vomiting. Why do so many pregnant women have so much trouble keeping food down at the very time that their need for calories and other nutrients has just gone up? Why is this problem common in women but seemingly nonexistent in pregnant females of other species? Is there something wrong with the design of human pregnancy, or is there something wrong with the food the pregnant woman is eating? I’m inclined to suspect the food, especially because morning sickness is common in the United States but rare to nonexistent in societies whose staple foods all come from plants.

Vomiting is a powerful defense mechanism. It effectively removes toxins and infectious agents from the stomach and even the upper intestines. It’s nature’s way of expelling things that shouldn’t be allowed to enter the body. This defense mechanism may be particularly important during pregnancy. Studies have consistently shown that women who vomit during early pregnancy are less likely to have a miscarriage than are those who merely feel nauseated. Perhaps it’s because the vomiting prevented things that would be harmful during early pregnancy from entering the woman’s body. Thus, it’s probably no coincidence that the nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy tend to be most severe during the first trimester, which is the most sensitive phase of development.

In a classic article, Samuel Flaxman and Paul Sherman explained how morning sickness could end up protecting the mother and the pregnancy. They argued that morning sickness is most common when the major organ systems are developing, and the vomiting seems to be triggered by the foods and beverages that are most likely to be harmful to the mother and the pregnancy. Flaxman and Sherman pointed out that in 9 out of 9 studies, women who experienced morning sickness were much less likely to miscarry.

Flaxman and Sherman noted that many pregnant women have aversions to alcoholic and nonalcoholic (mainly caffeinated) beverages and strong-tasting vegetables, but the greatest aversions were to meats, fish, poultry, and eggs. The importance of animal-based foods in causing morning sickness also became obvious in a cross-cultural comparison. Seven societies that were free of morning sickness were significantly less likely to have animal foods as dietary staples and were significantly more likely to have only plants (mainly corn) as staple foods than were 20 societies in which women experience morning sickness.

Foodborne infectious or parasitic disease could be a serious threat to the health of a pregnant woman or her pregnancy. During pregnancy, a woman’s immune system is already somewhat suppressed, to keep it from attacking the pregnancy. As a result, pregnant women are more likely to catch serious, potentially deadly infections. Infectious and parasitic diseases are also a major threat to the developing embryo. For example, if a pregnant woman catches Toxoplasma, which is a parasite found in cat droppings or undercooked beef, the parasite infection could cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe birth defects.

A pregnant woman can protect her health and her pregnancy by simply avoiding the foods that are likely to make her vomit. A purely plant-based diet provides all of the nutrients that a pregnant woman needs, except for vitamin D (which she can get from sunshine) and vitamin B12 (which is made by bacteria and is available in a nice, clean tablet).

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Varicose Veins Result From Constipation, Not From Pregnancy

If you do an Internet search on varicose veins, you’ll probably find lots of articles that claim that the cause of this condition is complicated or mysterious. Pregnancy is usually cited as a risk factor. Yet Denis Parsons Burkitt found that varicose veins were practically nonexistent in Uganda, even though many of the women in Uganda had borne many children.

The people in Uganda, like many other populations in the Third World, were eating an extremely high-fiber diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables. As a result, they produced large, soft stools that were easy to pass. In contrast, Europeans and Americans tend to eat a low-fiber diet with a lot of processed foods and dairy products. As a result, their stools were small, hard, and difficult to pass. The pressure that is generated within the body when people try to pass these hard pellets can cause serious damage, including diverticulosis, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, hiatal hernia, and uterine prolapse.

In other words, your varicose veins spell out “I’ve been constipated” in swollen purple letters. How embarrassing!

The Dutch Hunger Winter

The best data that we have on the effects of starvation during pregnancy came about as the result of a war crime. In retaliation for a railroad strike that undermined the German military’s ability to resist the advancing Allied forces, the Germans cut off food supplies to the still-occupied western part of the Netherlands in October of 1944. Thus began a famine that lasted until May of 1945. This appalling, criminal starvation of a civilian population caused nearly 20,000 excess deaths, mainly in elderly men. It also had terrible effects on the survivors, including pregnant women and their babies. The effects of the Dutch Hunger Winter on survivors are still being studied today.

From a scientific standpoint, the data from the Dutch Hunger Winter are particularly valuable. Here was a population that went from being well-fed to being badly starved and then went back to being well-fed. The precise dates of the food deprivation were known and could be correlated with birth records. After the war, scientists studied families that had been exposed to the famine. They paid particular attention to people who had been in their mother’s womb during the famine.

The main thing that we’ve learned from the Dutch Hunger Winter is that starvation is bad, especially for pregnant women. The next time you hear of someone advocating some policy that would end up starving a civilian population, do whatever you can to prevent or stop it.

The other valuable lesson learned from the Dutch Hunger Winter was the cause of celiac disease. When wheat became scarce and people had to subsist on other foods, such as tulip bulbs, children with celiac disease improved dramatically. Currently, a diet that is free of wheat, rye, and barley is the standard way to manage celiac disease.

Movie star Audrey Hepburn, who survived the Dutch Hunger Winter, served as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) from 1988 to the end of her life.

Photo by ElizaPeyton