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Victim of severe nausea during her second pregnancy, an obstetrics researcher wanted to find the cause. She thinks she has found the culprit: a hormone that acts on the brain.

Nausea and vomiting are common in early pregnancy and occur without a really defined cause. Most often, this nausea is moderate, but in 4% of cases, the vomiting is very severe and prevents the pregnant woman from eating: this is calledhyperemesis gravidarum.

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That’s what happened to Marlena Fejzo, an obstetrics researcher in Southern California, during her second pregnancy. Unable to keep food down and stand upright, she wanted to know the underlying cause of her nausea.

The more hormones you have before pregnancy, the less you suffer from nausea

With a team of researchers, she set her sights on a particular hormone called GDF15, the rate of which is particularly high in pregnant women. They found that GDF15 levels were significantly higher in a group of about 60 women with hyperemesis than in another similarly sized group of pregnant women without nausea.

“GDF15 levels increase during pregnancy and it seems that some women are more sensitive to this hormone than others. This is what would trigger hyperemeresis gravidarum” explains Marlena Fejzo.

By continuing their research with a group of 18,000 Scottish women, they also discovered that women who had a high level of the GDF15 hormone before their pregnancy were those who suffered the least from severe nausea. “As if higher levels of GDF15 before pregnancy offered some protection against hyperemesis, by desensitizing women so that they vomit less,” the researchers suggest.

Further research is needed to substantiate this hypothesis, but increasing GDF15 levels before pregnancy could be a clue to help prevent hyperemeresis gravidarum.

Source : Fetally-encoded GDF15 and maternal GDF15 sensitivity are major determinants of nausea and vomiting in human pregnancyPreprint server for biology, June 2023

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