Are you at risk for preeclampsia? Learn more about what preeclampsia is, what the risk factors are, and what signs and symptoms to look out for.
Mama’s age (being a teenager or over the age of 35), chronic conditions (such as having type 2 diabetes), and pregnancy conditions (such as preeclampsia) are all reasons that may land you with a high-risk label. The good news is that once your midwife or OB determines you are high-risk, you’ll receive extra monitoring to make sure you and baby have a safe and healthy pregnancy. During routine prenatal appointments, your doctor or midwife does many things—from taking your blood pressure readings to checking your urine for protein—to check for signs of high-risk conditions like preeclampsia.
All of those precautions might make you wonder: Could I have preeclampsia? And if your urine tested positive for protein, you may be wondering: what now?
If you’re at risk, there’s a few things you need to know. In this post, we’ll cover:
- What is preeclampsia?
- How do you prevent preeclampsia?
- What are the signs of preeclampsia?
- What can you expect if you’re diagnosed with preeclampsia?
- How is preeclampsia treated?
- What are the potential complications?
What is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a condition that affects only pregnant women, and it is characterized by high blood pressure, fluid retention, and protein in the urine.
The condition affects 5-8 percent of pregnant women, but it has a tendency to affect African American and Hispanic women more than women of Asian or European ancestry.
How to Prevent Preeclampsia & Natural Ways to Decrease Your Risk
Unfortunately there is no way to completely prevent it, but there are a few things you can do to help reduce your chances of becoming preeclamptic. Prevention can begin before you even conceive.
Because women with higher BMI levels are more at risk for developing preeclampsia, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, aim to drink at least eight to ten 8-ounce glasses of water each day.
If you have one (or a few) of the risk factors for preeclampsia, there are natural ways to reduce your chances of developing the condition.
Lifestyle Changes that Decrease Your Risk of Preeclampsia
Decreasing your risk for preeclampsia may be as simple as tweaking your daily routine to include a few of these healthy habits:
- Exercise: Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise each day—as long as your OB or midwife approves!
- Rest: Don’t stress! I know—easier said than done! Try prenatal yoga, listening to relaxing music, or take a stroll in nature.
- Sleep: Sleep is good for oh-so-many reasons, but it’s especially important for mama to get some rest.
- Meditation: Stress can raise your blood pressure, while meditation can help lower it.
- Get some sunshine! Low vitamin D is associated with preeclamptic women in a study in Ireland. (You can also eat vitamin D-rich foods such as sardines, egg yolks, grass fed butter, or cod liver oil.)
Nutritional Ways to Decrease Your Risk of Preeclampsia
Like so many other conditions, food (and supplements) play a big role in the prevention of preeclampsia.
- Keep taking your prenatal vitamin: A new study published in April 2018 shows that folic acid can help reduce the risk of preeclampsia.
- Indulge in your favorite chocolate: Chocolate lover’s rejoice! A study from 2010 linked chocolate consumption in pregnant women with lowered blood pressure levels, and this study looked directly at chocolate’s effect on preeclampsia. The key: It has to be dark chocolate. Craving some chocolate now? These dark chocolate bars are organic and free trade.
- Try tart cherry juice: A 2016 study found that lower levels of melatonin were linked to preeclampsia. Usually associated with its ability to help people sleep longer, tart cherry juice contains the highest levels of naturally occurring melatonin. This is the brand we use.
- Load up on fiber and antioxidant-rich food: High fiber diets work to lower your blood pressure levels. Studies show that fiber helps even if you have already developed hypertension.
- Eat more garlic: Whether you like it raw, roasted, grilled, or ground up in your hummus, studies show that garlic also helps lower blood pressure levels.
- Eat more beets: Specifically, drink more beets. In studies, beet root juice lowered blood pressure levels very quickly upon consuming the beverage.
- Follow the Brewer’s Diet: See more info below
Does the Brewer’s Diet Work?
”Research conducted and reported in medical literature over the past century provides conclusive evidence that toxemia of pregnancy [eclampsia] is a disease of incorrect nutrition and that incorrect nutrition is also associated with the vast majority of cases of preterm labor.” — Dr. Brewer
The Brewer’s Diet (further explained in this post) encourages women to adapt their diet in a way that promotes healthy blood volume expansion. By eating foods that work with the body to increase blood volume, you are ensuring that the placenta receives an adequate blood supply and that blood pressure levels remain stable. There is a heavy emphasis on protein and salt consumption.
- Protein: According to the Brewer’s Diet, pregnant mamas need to eat at least 80 grams of protein, but 100-120 grams is even better. Why protein? Protein contains the amino acids that are the building blocks of blood.
- Salt consumption: Unlike typical high blood pressure diets that recommend limiting your salt intake, the Brewer’s diet encourages adding salt to taste. Skip the bleached table salt and opt for a high-quality salt. Salt helps your body stay properly hydrated. Think about this: When you are in the hospital and are dehydrated, you receive bags of saline (salt) water—not plain water.
Together salt and protein work with the liver to support healthy blood pressure levels. Remember that high blood pressure is a symptom of preeclampsia, and the Brewer’s Diet works to manage that symptom.
But does it really work?
Some mamas have had great success with reducing their blood pressure by just increasing their protein intake and not restricting their salt intake. Others have not. It can’t hurt though—all of that extra protein can help you feel full and less likely to give in to all those other cravings.
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What Are the Signs of Preeclampsia?
Pregnant women with preeclampsia may or may not show any visible symptoms, which is why your healthcare provider always checks your urine for protein at each prenatal appointment.
Besides protein in the urine, other signs of preeclampsia include:
- High blood pressure
- Vision changes
- Visual disturbances such as seeing “floaters”
- Nausea and abdominal pain
- Quick weight gain (more than normal for baby’s gestational age)
- Swelling (especially quick and sudden swelling)
Talk to your doctor if you experience any of the above symptoms, especially during the third trimester. If you don’t feel ill, your doctor or midwife will be able to determine if you have preeclampsia through the routine testing outlined above.
Risk Factors for Preeclampsia
Although you can’t prevent it, it’s still helpful to know the risk factors:
- History of high blood pressure
- Genetics: You’re more likely to have preeclampsia if your mom or sister had it
- You’re pregnant with multiples
- Pre-pregnancy lifestyle choices: Drinking and smoking increases your risk
- History of autoimmune diseases such as diabetes or lupus
- Location of placental implantation: Researchers are learning more about the link between the placenta and preeclampsia. The location of the implantation may cause inadequate blood flow to the placenta, and without good blood flow, the placenta may not function properly. If the placenta implants in a way that does not allow for the dilation of the blood vessels (to account for the additional blood volume of pregnancy), blood pressure levels may rise as a result.
Is Preeclampsia Deadly?
Preeclampsia is actually the beginning of a more serious condition called eclampsia, which can be deadly. Eclampsia is characterized by seizures and clotting problems, which is why treatment of preeclampsia is so important. The good news is that OBs and midwives are trained to look out for any red flags.
How Does Preeclampsia Affect the Unborn Baby?
Preeclampsia can be quite serious when it comes to baby’s health:
- Nutrients and oxygen can be cut off
- Risk of premature birth increases
- Risk of stillbirth increases due to increased risk of placental abruption
- Low birth weight more likely due to the placenta not receiving enough blood
Again, treatment is very important, and this is just another reason why routine prenatal appointments are so important.
How Do You Treat Preeclampsia?
Unfortunately, there is no cure except to have your baby; however, if you are not yet close to term or if your case is mild, there are ways to manage it:
- Bed rest
- More frequent monitoring, including blood and urine tests, ultrasounds, etc.
If you have a more severe case, but are not yet ready to deliver, your doctor may suggest:
- Hospital bed rest
- Medication to lower blood pressure
- Medication to prevent seizures
- Magnesium IV to prevent seizures
- Steroid shots to help baby’s lungs prepare for an earlier-than-anticipated birth
What Does a Preeclampsia Diagnosis Mean for My Natural Birth?
Despite our best wishes as mamas, sometimes we have to do what is best—even if it’s not what we want. This is one of those situations. Depending on your symptoms and the severity of your condition, your doctor may decide to induce or even plan a C-section because of the delivery complications for mama (such as bleeding or HELLP syndrome).
What about a home birth? Is that out of the question?
Like mama, baby can also face complications during delivery, including lack of oxygen or breathing problems. You’re also more at risk for placental abruption, so you’ll likely need to give birth in a hospital so baby can be monitored closely.
How About You?
Have you received a preeclampsia diagnosis? What steps are you taking to manage it?