When you’re pregnant, being healthy is not only for your sake, but for the sake of your growing baby. Things like high cholesterol, which can be treated with medication in non-pregnant women, can be more difficult to manage when you’re with child.
Cholesterol naturally increases at certain points during gestation. This is true even in women who have “normal” cholesterol levels pre-pregnancy. For women already struggling with high cholesterol, it can climb even higher. Fortunately, all women can take steps to manage their cholesterol throughout their pregnancy, to help ensure that they and their babies are as healthy as possible.
Cholesterol and the Pregnant Body
Cholesterol is an essential compound found in most of the body’s tissues. But at high levels, it can form plaque on your heart’s arterial walls, putting you at a greater risk of heart attack or stroke. “Bad” cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), in particular is cause for concern.
When you have your cholesterol tested, you will learn your total cholesterol level. This is further broken down into levels of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is also known as “good” cholesterol. Triglycerides, a type of fat, are found in the blood and are used for energy. In general, healthy limits for these numbers are:
- LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL: greater than 50 mg/dL
- Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
Why Cholesterol Goes Up
However, when you’re pregnant, you can expect those numbers to climb. Carolyn Gundell, a nutritionist at Reproductive Medicine Associates in Connecticut, says that cholesterol levels can climb by as much as 25 to 50 percent during the second and third trimesters.
“Cholesterol is necessary for the production and function of steroid hormones such as estrogen and progesterone,” she explains. “These sex hormones are vital for a healthy and successful pregnancy.”
And they are also crucial for your baby’s proper development. “Cholesterol plays a role in baby’s brain, limb, and cellular development, and in healthy breast milk,” says Gundell.
When Should You Worry?
Most women shouldn’t worry about the natural increase in cholesterol. Usually, Gundell says, levels will drop back to their normal ranges within four to six weeks post-delivery. It’s chronic high cholesterol that elevates your risk of heart disease and stroke.
If you have high cholesterol even before pregnancy, talk with your doctor. Because some cholesterol drugs like statins can’t be taken while pregnant, he or she will either change your medication or help you come up with other ways of managing your cholesterol.
Gundell says this might include:
- increasing exercise
- eating more fiber
- getting healthy fats like those derived from nuts and avocados
- limiting fried foods and those high in saturated fats and sugars
Your doctor will likely check your cholesterol as part of your regular pregnancy blood work. Any changes to your lifestyle or diet are best discussed with the professional helping you navigate this special time.