When you’re pregnant, making healthy choices benefits not only you, but also your growing baby. Conditions like high cholesterol, which can be treated with a variety of medications in nonpregnant women, can be more difficult to manage when you’re pregnant.

Cholesterol levels naturally increase at certain points during pregnancy to help provide the nutrients needed for a growing fetus. This is true even in women who have “normal” cholesterol levels pre-pregnancy. For women who already have high cholesterol, the levels can climb even higher.

Fortunately, 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 plaques in the arterial walls of your heart and body, putting you at a greater risk of heart attack or stroke.

When you have your cholesterol tested, you will learn your total cholesterol level. This is further broken down into levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides.

High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is also known as “good” cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, can put you at risk of a heart attack at high levels. Triglycerides, a type of fat, are found in the blood and are used for energy.

The most current cholesterol guidelines from the American Heart Association focus on lowering the risk of heart disease rather than targeting specific cholesterol numbers.

Cholesterol levels that may place you at increased risk of heart disease or metabolic problems, such as diabetes, are:

  • LDL: greater than 160 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
  • HDL: less than 40 mg/dL
  • total cholesterol: greater than 200 mg/dL
  • triglycerides: greater than 150 mg/dL

Talk to your doctor about your specific cholesterol results and the best ways to lower your risk of heart disease.

Why cholesterol goes up

When you’re pregnant, you can expect your cholesterol 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, levels will return to their normal ranges within four to six weeks post-delivery. It’s chronichigh 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 may not be recommended during pregnancy, he or she will either change your medication or help you come up with other ways of managing your cholesterol.

This might include:

  • increasing physical activity
  • eating more fiber
  • getting healthy fats like those derived from nuts and avocados
  • limiting fried foods and those high in saturated fats and sugars
  • adding omega-3-rich foods or supplements to your diet

If you are being treated for high cholesterol and become pregnant, 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 who is helping you navigate this special time.

Why cholesterol goes up During pregnancy, cholesterol is needed for:

  • proper development of your baby
  • production and function of estrogen and progesterone
  • the development of healthy breast milk

Natural ways to maintain your cholesterol

  • get healthy fats from nuts and avocado
  • avoid fried foods
  • limit saturated fats to lower LDL
  • limit sugar to lower triglycerides
  • eat more fiber
  • exercise regularly