With the swollen feet, extra pounds and aching back, there are plenty of not-so-fun side effects when you’re expecting. But did you know that there are many pregnancy perks that can benefit your long-term health? Let’s take a look at how.
Longer life During pregnancy, a woman and her baby exchange a small number of cells via the placenta, and some of those fetal cells remain in her body, a phenomenon called microchimerism. (Microchimerism can also result from blood transfusions and transplants, and it can occur between fraternal twins.)
A 2014 Danish study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests that male microchimerism—determined by the presence of Y chromosomes in a woman's blood—is associated with a lower mortality rate in women. The study followed a group of 272 women and found that 85 percent of women with male microchimerism lived past the age of 80, compared to 67 percent of women without the presence of Y chromosomes. Although researchers don’t know why that is exactly, one theory suggests microchimerism increases the body’s ability to detect and destroy pathogens and cells that could become cancerous.
Reduced breast cancer risk Your risk of developing this disease is related to your exposure to hormones produced by ovaries (endogenous estrogen and progesterone). The longer the exposure, the higher the risk of developing breast cancer.
Since pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce a woman’s number of menstrual cycles over her lifetime, she has a decreased exposure to endogenous hormones. For the same reasons, reproductive factors like early onset of menstruation or late onset of menopause have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
According to Marsha Davidson, executive director of the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, “Breast tissue is constantly changing with hormone levels, and a woman who has been pregnant has had a different hormonal history than one who has not. Studies show that women who have been pregnant at the age of 30 or younger have consistently been found to have a lower risk.” Though a number of studies have proven this, the biological causes are not yet fully understood.
Reduced risk of gynecological cancers Pregnancy can also lessen your risk of ovarian and endometrial (uterine) cancer. Haim Abenhaim, an OB/GYN and maternal fetal medicine specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, explains that, typically, every month the ovaries go through a process where cells divide (cell division can make cells susceptible to cancer), but during those nine months of pregnancy and the time you breastfeed, the ovaries get a break.
“The more pregnancies you have, the less cell division takes place over your lifetime, thereby lowering the risk of developing endometrial and uterine cancers,” says Abenhaim.
Less painful periods Some women who have suffered through heavy or painful periods before getting pregnant can actually see an about-face post-childbirth—especially those who have endometriosis.
“With endo, there are a lot of structural things that are wrong in the pelvis,” says Toronto naturopath Pamela Frank, “and some of those improve when everything—the ligaments, the tissue, the adhesions—relaxes to deliver the baby.” Unfortunately, not all women experience this kind of relief.
Overall improved health “Pregnancy can have a cascade effect on women,” says Toronto midwife Shâdé Chatrath, who educates moms-to-be on improving their well-being by eating right, exercising and having regular PAP tests after giving birth. She’s seen many of her clients stick with the healthy habits they adopted while they were pregnant. “Once you have a baby, you tend to have a new outlook on life,” she says. “You make health a priority.”
Did you know? Pregnancy and breastfeeding have direct effects on breast cells, causing them to mature so they can produce milk. The hypothesis is that the differentiated cells are more resistant to mutating into cancer cells than those that haven’t undergone this transformation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2015 issue with the headline "Pregnant perks" on pp. 47.