Q: My sister is having her first child, and her husband just lost his job. I told her she needs to stop stressing so much, but she won't listen to me. What can I do to convince her it's important?
— Georgia F., Billings, Mont.
A: You are right; even though it's tough to do, it's important for your sister to de-stress, particularly now that she's pregnant. Stress alters the baby's immune system and other bodily functions. But we can show her effective ways to defuse the tension, and your sister and her baby should end up being happier and healthier.
First, here's why stress can be harmful: Stress hormones and other bodily reactions stimulate the immune and other systems into overproduction of inflammatory substances. They summon the immune system's warrior cells to battle — even if there's not an actual bad guy, like a virus or bacteria, to fight off. That all-revved-up-without-a-good-reason response changes the way the body makes new immune cells, and seems to increase production of pro-inflammatory immune cells. So the fetus is growing in an overcharged, inflammatory environment.
Research also shows that what's transmitted from mom to baby isn't just the hard-wired genetic code (DNA) that is locked in at conception: Environmental trauma like stress can turn some of your sister's genes on or off, and those changes often show up in the fetus's genes as well!
Stress also affects the child as it's being born. While passing through the birth canal, a newborn picks up bacteria from the mother's vagina that becomes a part of the child's microbiome (gut bacteria). But your sister's balance of good and bad gut bacteria is affected by constant stress (bad takes over). Animal studies have shown that an offspring's brain development can be negatively affected by a stress-caused imbalance in a pregnant mother's biome.
So, to keep everyone de-stressed and healthy, help your sister enjoy light cardio exercise for 20 minutes, three times a week. (Check sharecare.com's “pregnancy exercise” for advice on doing it safely.) It's been shown to improve fetal brain development. And have her try 10 minutes of mindful meditation in the morning and before bed. It helps manage stress, improves sleep (it's so important during pregnancy) and will give her more energy to deal with daily challenges.