Sheila Khianey, MD, is a cardiologist with the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute practicing at the Inova Cardiology offices in Ashburn and Fairfax. She is board-certified in cardiology and internal medicine.
The human body is a remarkable thing, especially when it comes to pregnancy. And pregnancy brings major changes. An expectant mother’s heart has to work harder to increase blood flow to support the developing baby.
Healthy hearts are designed to handle this extra workload. Sometimes, though, pregnancy can unmask underlying heart problems that women don’t even know they have.
Here’s what you should know about pregnancy and a healthy heart if you’re an expectant mother (or trying to become one).
Planning for Pregnancy
Many women become more aware of their health and start getting regular doctor checkups when they find out they’re pregnant. That’s important, of course, but it’s even better to take control of your health before you get pregnant.
The more proactive you are, the greater the odds of a healthy pregnancy — for both mother and baby. Luckily, many of the things you can do to protect your heart during pregnancy are important for staying healthy in general:
- Be your own health advocate. If something doesn’t feel right to you, have a conversation with your doctor.
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet with more fruits and vegetables
- Exercise regularly. Pick an activity you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like a chore.
- Get enough sleep. Try sleeping an extra 30 minutes a day.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight. This varies for each person, so don’t get too stuck on the number.
- Don’t smoke or vape. (Just don’t.)
- Don’t stress the small stuff. Try to find ways to manage stress in positive and productive ways, and seek help when you need it.
- Consider practicing mindfulness. Take 5 minutes every morning to clear your mind, relax and think about how you want to go about your day.
- See a doctor regularly to monitor health and manage problems
If you know you have an existing heart problem such as high blood pressure, heart disease or structural heart defects, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before trying to conceive. Your medical provider can help you determine whether a pregnancy is safe, and help you make a plan to manage any risks.
How Pregnancy Affects the Heart
Pregnancy can affect the heart and blood vessels in a few key ways:
- Blood volume increases. Within the first trimester, a woman’s blood volume can increase 40% to 50% to nourish the growing baby. As a result, the heart pumps out more blood with every beat.
- Heart rate increases. The heart typically beats faster during pregnancy, increasing by 10 to 15 beats per minute.
- Blood pressure changes. Typically, an expectant woman’s blood pressure decreases as a result of hormones and changes in blood flow. In a small percentage of mothers, though, blood pressure increases — a condition known as gestational hypertension. High blood pressure during pregnancy can increase risks to the mother and baby, and should be monitored and managed.
Supporting a Healthy Heart During Pregnancy
How can you maximize heart health during pregnancy? I recommend staying as active as possible and continuing healthy lifestyle behaviors. Those include a heart-healthy diet and sufficient sleep.
Even healthy women can experience uncomfortable pregnancy symptoms such as fatigue and shortness of breath. Such symptoms can be uncomfortable, but they’re usually harmless.
However, some symptoms can indicate a possible heart condition. Talk to your doctor if you experience these signs:
- Significant shortness of breath. Some breathlessness is to be expected, but it typically comes on gradually with activity. Sudden, unexplained shortness of breath that occurs even when you’re at rest could signal a possible problem with the heart.
- Rapid heartbeat. A racing heart could indicate a heart rhythm problem, especially when it goes up suddenly without any obvious reason.
- Chest discomfort or pain. If you have unexplained pain, discomfort or numbness in your chest, arm, neck or jaw, that may be a warning sign of a heart problem. (If the pain is sudden and persistent, call 9-1-1.)
It’s important to know your body. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.
Fortunately, it’s quick and easy for doctors to screen your heart for problems. A screening can rule out potential problems and give you peace of mind. And if it uncovers anything out of the ordinary, a cardiologist can help you find treatments to manage the problem, during pregnancy and beyond.
Protecting Your Heart Long-Term
Taking care of your heart during pregnancy isn’t just good for your baby. It’s also good for you.
Research has found that women who have better heart health early in pregnancy are less likely to have certain risk factors for heart disease 10 years later.
Heart problems are both common and serious. But so much of heart disease is preventable — and when it can’t be prevented, it’s treatable. By taking steps to invest in your health before and during pregnancy, you’ll set yourself on a path toward long-term heart health.