by Rebekah Madren
My initial HG diagnosis
I never thought I would be pregnant and thinking about suicide. Pregnancy is supposed to be all baby bump pictures and cute nurseries, right? Enter hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a rare pregnancy disease that assaults a woman with debilitating, life-threatening nausea and vomiting. It’s what NOT to expect when you’re expecting.
Because HG is a rare disease, finding help and healing for HG proved to be a painstaking adventure. After two HG pregnancies, research, and help from my support system, I have found some valuable tools that improved my pregnancy and postpartum experience. I want to acknowledge the HG moms who have endured invasive treatment, long hospitalizations and even organ failure. My hyperemesis gravidarum was never that severe, so if the strategies I share don’t work for you, it’s not your fault! I admire you and have the utmost respect for your journey.
Fifteen weeks into my first pregnancy, I was diagnosed with HG. I had been in the ER several times for IV fluids and could barely eat or drink. My vomiting caused dehydration, and then I could not tolerate even fluids, which worsened the dehydration. Then I would drag myself to the ER for fluids for a few days of relief. At the moment when I was most dehydrated, I felt suicidal. I learned later how dangerous dehydration could be, and that those feelings were my body’s urgent cry for help.
After my initial HG diagnosis, I started some medication that helped me get to the point where I could at least get breakfast down. I did everything my doctor told me. Yet at 24 weeks, I saw no improvement in how I felt, so I went to see my naturopathic doctor. He asked about my digestion and told me to cut out processed grains, sugar and dairy. He wanted me to blend up soups and nutrient-dense smoothies. I was skeptical, but with my mom’s help, I started to shift my eating habits. Smoothies and mild soups were palatable, thankfully.
For a week, I had a major regression of symptoms. Then, I could actually go to the bathroom easily and I started to feel better. Soon, I stopped taking medication and could eat almost normally. Hyperemesis gravidarum symptoms can resolve on their own in later pregnancy, but I did notice the role of whole foods in helping my symptoms. If I ate processed food, my nausea would often return.
My second pregnancy
I started my second pregnancy with whole foods when I could. During the worst of my HG, I tried to make lateral shifts–I sucked on frozen fruit instead of sugary popsicles and subbed almond flour crackers for pretzels. This time, I didn’t wait until I was desperately dehydrated;I got routine IVs during my most severe weeks of HG. When my nausea was the worst, I put myself on bedrest (by the way, I do NOT take these privileges lightly!).
When I could tolerate more food, I tried (“tried”…because vomiting was always a possibility) to add protein and fat instead of just eating carbs in the morning. That seemed to keep me more stable for the day. Lunches were smoothies with protein and fat added when possible, or a plate of cucumbers, a few grapes and almond flour crackers. Snacks were whole foods bars. Sometimes I would look at food and decide I could never eat that again ever. Give yourself grace–if you have to barely survive off of vanilla wafers and ice chips, just do what you have to do.
Thankfully, with the combination of whole foods, routine IVs for hydration, bedrest, and some alternative therapies, I was able to stay off medication for my second pregnancy. My nausea cleared up by 25 weeks (I remember the day SO WELL). I never felt amazing, but I had a much healthier pregnancy than my first.
Replenishing nutrients postpartum
I believe that whole foods are essential for postpartum healing. All moms tap into some nutrient stores to help our precious baby grow, but for HG moms, it’s hard to keep them replenished since eating is an obstacle. Then if we breastfeed, we continue to send our nutrients to baby via breast milk.
Hyperemesis gravidarum leaves our bodies weak. After birth, my muscles were soft and my body ached. I had been sick for nine months, and getting my strength back did not happen overnight. With both pregnancies, I got physical therapy to help gain muscle back.
I wish I had understood the importance of whole foods after birth. I figured since I wasn’t “sick” anymore, it did not matter as much. And honestly—I didn’t think real food was worth the investment of time. Over time, however, both my children and I developed symptoms that were related to being malnourished and eating foods that did not work well for our bodies.
Eighteen months postpartum after my second baby, I did a Whole30, thanks to encouragement from our beloved Steph Greunke. The Whole30 helped me to reset my palette after years of HG effects. It helped me cut out excess sugar and make wiser food choices. It also helped me reset my children’s diet. I could see improvements in their health during the Whole30, too! We transitioned to a whole foods diet after doing a Whole30.
Transitioning a family to a real food diet is no joke, especially when you have babies. It’s taken me over 3 years. I’ve seen several of our health issues resolved through a change in diet, and seeing my children gobble up broccoli and salad makes me weepy. It’s a result of trial and error and a ton of elbow grease. Yes, we still go out for pizza occasionally, and I ate the chocolate chip cookies my neighbor brought me last week. But I had a wicked headache the next morning, and I now know what foods to avoid to keep me feeling well most of the time.
My favorite resources for feeding whole foods to a family are Whole Mamas and the Whole Mamas Podcast, following @stephgreunke & @drelenaroumell on IG, Renee Kohley and her book Nourished Beginnings, Danielle Walker, The Weston A. Price Foundation, and The Dental Diet by Dr. Stephen Lin (A MUST READ for HG moms—we often have dental issues. We CAN make our teeth stronger through diet!).
Emotional & Psychological Healing
Beyond the physical effects of HG, the emotional and psychological toll on an HG mom is legitimate. We have traumatic memories, grief, and anger. These do not resolve on their own, no matter how cute our new baby is!
I deeply desire to be a Whole Mama. For me, being whole equals more joy, and the trauma of HG was stealing some of my joy in being a mom. I’ve found some tools that helped my mama heart and mind heal from this terrible pregnancy disease:
- Giving Back to HG Moms: Through friends and an HG group on Facebook, I find joy in helping HG moms get through a pregnancy. Whether it’s text messages to say it’s okay to feel hopeless or stopping by with a bag of frozen fruit, helping others has been therapeutic. Sharing our worst vomiting stories is also strangely healing.
- Working Through Traumatic Memories: I tried for years to write about that day I was suicidal and other awful memories. I would slam my journal shut, unable to access the memory. After hearing about symptoms of trauma, I realized I suffered from real trauma. I worked with a therapist and a faith leader to process some traumatic memories. With their help, I could access and make peace with them.
- Working Through Anger, Resentment and Grief: I can STILL remember the text I got from a naïve friend who told me I needed to get out of my house. I hadn’t left in 3 weeks. My husband was deployed and I lay on my couch, eating ice chips to survive, wondering if I would actually die from HG.
HG moms understandably become angry, resentful and sad over the pain of HG. People don’t understand the disease; they judge us, they tell us we are making up symptoms, and they certainly can’t empathize. Holding on to anger and resentment can have major consequences though. I experienced physical symptoms and distance in relationships. Eventually, I was able to heal my anger and resentment with a 12 step program and The Curable App. It’s been messy work, but oh so worth it. Through the process, I’ve been able to let go of negative feelings from previous events that had nothing to do with HG!
Gratitude and Hyperemesis Gravidarum
In our western culture, we assume that suffering is all bad and should be avoided. “I just want to be happy!” we cry, like Prince Gristle from the Trolls movie. In other cultures, people accept that suffering is part of the human experience and that good, even joy, can come from it.
I can count the good that has come from HG. I am a thousand times more grateful when I drink a glass of water, effortlessly. What I’ve learned about whole foods helps me as a mama and a friends of mamas on a daily basis. While I know more about holistic dental health that I EVER wanted to, my teeth are now strong and I pass on what I learned frequently.
Working through the emotional component of HG has healed other areas of my life, where I deeply, yet unknowingly, needed it. And as relentless and tiring as motherhood is, I look at my two miracle babies and count them as all the more precious, because of the high cost of carrying them.
Overall, the brokenness of hyperemesis gravidarum led me to being a more whole mama. Motherhood is an ongoing journey, and I need still need support! I hope that in reading this, you find solidarity. You’re not alone, and I wish you hope and healing as we travel this path together.
Rebekah is a military wife, mama, teacher, and writer living in Southern Maryland.