During your pregnancy, it’s only natural to focus on your baby’s health and development. But it’s also important to think about your own health — especially your heart health. Pregnancy and heart health are closely connected; what happens during this time can affect your risk for heart disease later in life.
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Pregnancy and Heart Health
“Pregnancy is a time when there are a lot of natural changes in your cardiovascular system and a lot of stress is put on your body,” says Natalie Stokes, MD, cardiologist, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, UPMC St. Margaret.
When you’re pregnant, your heart works harder. Your blood volume increases to support your growing baby, so your heart pumps faster to circulate the blood throughout your body, raising your heart rate. When you go into labor, your blood pressure will fluctuate. It may even take a few weeks after giving birth for your heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal.
As your unborn baby grows and puts pressure on your diaphragm, you may experience mild chest pains, shortness of breath, and even heart palpitations. These symptoms are normal and rarely a problem. It’s unusual for women to have heart problems during childbearing years, but it can happen. Be sure to talk with your doctor about any concerns.
Pregnancy and Heart Disease Risk
While heart disease is more common in older women, there seems to be a link between heart-related conditions during pregnancy and heart disease risk later in life.
“During pregnancy, you’re going to the doctor more often, and maybe before that, you weren’t going as regularly. This provides an opportunity to gain insight into your own health, as well as the health of your baby. For many, it can be a window into your future cardiovascular risk,” Dr. Stokes adds.
If you have been diagnosed with pregnancy-induced hypertension (preeclampsia) or gestational diabetes, you have a greater risk of developing heart disease in midlife. Talk to your doctor about your risk for heart disease after pregnancy and learn what you can do to decrease or control your risk factors.
How to Protect Your Heart During and After Pregnancy
Following a healthy diet and staying active are the top two ways to protect your heart. Stay active as much as you’re able during pregnancy, even if you can manage only a few 10-minute walks each day. Eat regular meals, take your prenatal vitamins consistently, and follow a heart-healthy diet that includes:
- Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish.
- Limited saturated fat and red meats.
- Limited sodium.
- Low-fat dairy.
- Plenty of whole fruits and vegetables.
- Unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, oils, and avocado.
- Whole grains.
“The postpartum phase is an important time because you are adjusting to life with your new baby and your body is also going through a lot of strenuous changes to get back to its normal state in terms of blood flow, heart rate, fluid balance, and blood pressure,” Dr. Stokes says.
She adds that if you have concerns during this period, you should reach out to your doctor.
Since health choices during pregnancy can affect your heart health later in life, it’s important to start prevention efforts early. Your obstetrician or midwife can offer guidelines on diet and exercise throughout your pregnancy. If you’re struggling or feel you need a more personalized, detailed plan —before, during, or after pregnancy — consider talking to a nutritionist or dietitian. A few small lifestyle changes can protect your heart for years to come.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.