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Home > Learn > Pregnancy > >Can Stress Cause Preterm Labor? Stress & Preterm Labor Explained

Can Stress Cause Preterm Labor? Stress & Preterm Labor Explained

Aug 10, 23 8 min

By Dr. Kenosha Gleaton, OBGYN

Stress is a normal part of life that can impact everyone differently. Stress may be caused by a wide variety of stimuli, including emotional, mental, and physical tension. While short bursts of stress can sometimes be helpful, such as the fight or flight response in a dangerous situation, long-term stress or stress unrelated to any specific stimuli can be hard to manage and may have negative effects on our health. [1-2] 

The Types of Stress

There are two main types of stress that we classify as acute or chronic stress [2]: 

  • Acute stress refers to short-term stress that resolves quickly. Examples of acute stress include running late, upcoming deadlines, losing your phone or wallet, etc.
  • Chronic stress refers to stress that lasts for longer periods of time. Examples of chronic stress include financial worries, managing a chronic illness, marriage problems, etc. Chronic stress can last for months and may even be present without you realizing it. This type of stress can be dangerous if not managed appropriately. 

Reactions to Stress

In response to stress, the body releases hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine that are intended to improve your ability to manage internal or external challenges. [1] Some physiological reactions that may occur as a result of stress include [1-2]:

  • Increased alertness 
  • Tensed muscles
  • Increased pulse

When the body experiences chronic stress, the body will stay in an alert state even if there is no imminent danger. This can cause abnormal reactions in the body that increase the risk of many different health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety, obesity, and others. [1] Some research also shows that chronic stress may have an impact on pregnancy outcomes. [1] 

Planning for a new family member can bring about a certain amount of stress, but experiencing chronic stress may lead to difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits, headaches, and more, which can be harmful to maternal and fetal health. [1-3] Data shows that high levels of stress can also cause high blood pressure, which can be dangerous during pregnancy for a number of reasons. High blood pressure puts you at an increased risk for preeclampsia, preterm labor, and delivering a low-birth-weight baby. [3] 

The Connection Between Stress and Preterm Labor

Preterm labor refers to the start of labor prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm labor can occur without warning and lead to preterm birth, which may result in negative fetal health outcomes. Common symptoms of preterm labor include backache, abdominal cramping, changes in vaginal discharge, changes to the cervix, water breaking, and regular, painful contractions that occur for longer than an hour and don’t resolve after changing positions. [4-5] We can’t say for sure what causes preterm labor, but there are a few common risk factors, including [4-5]:

  • Previous preterm birth
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Low prepregnancy weight
  • Smoking during pregnancy

Some research shows that those who gave birth preterm did have higher rates of maternal stress than those who gave birth at term. [6] Chronic stress can also lead to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of preterm labor and low-birth weight. Other studies state that while maternal stress and preterm labor can be associated from a population-based perspective, the impact of stress on an individual’s pregnancy outcomes is more difficult to understand. [7] Many factors can play a role in the onset of stress as well as preterm labor. Factors such as gestational age, maternal age, underlying conditions, and more can all impact preterm labor risk. 

The bottom line is that long-term stress can lead to high blood pressure, which may increase the risk of preterm labor. Acute stress that passes quickly isn’t as likely to cause negative health outcomes. If you are concerned about your pregnancy, stress levels, or other mental health concerns, you should speak with your healthcare provider directly. 

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Reducing Stress During Pregnancy

So what can you do to healthily manage stress during pregnancy? Strategies for stress reduction can vary from person to person, so it’s important to find what works best for you. There are some science-based strategies that have been shown to effectively manage stress and anxiety, including mindfulness, adequate sleep, exercise, social support, and others. [8-9] 

Prioritize Sleep

Research shows that stress hormones such as cortisol rise when we aren’t getting enough sleep. [10] Lack of sleep can worsen feelings of stress, exhaustion, or anxiety. It’s common for many pregnant people to struggle to get a good night’s rest, but there are some things you can do to encourage restful sleep and improve sleep hygiene [9]:

  • Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night
  • Limit daytime naps to a half hour 
  • Avoid eating or drinking caffeine, carbonation, rich, fatty, or fried substances before bed
  • Tap into your circadian rhythm- make sure you’re getting enough sunlight during the day and try to keep your bedroom dark. 

Natalist Magnesium Plus has ingredients that have been shown to support sleep and relaxation- learn more about the benefits of magnesium. [11] 

Exercise

Exercise is a wonderful way to manage and reduce stress, promote better sleep, and improve psychological health. [8-9] Any type of activity that gets your body moving can be extremely helpful. Some options include prenatal yoga, walking, jogging, lifting weights, etc. Speak to your healthcare provider directly about what kind of exercises are safe for you. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of those buzz words that’s been popping up all over the place recently, and for good reason. There are a lot of benefits to mindfulness-based practices that can help you manage stress and other emotions. If you don’t really understand what mindfulness means, it’s a term to describe being present in the moment, aware of what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing. [9] You can practice mindfulness while taking intentional breaths, paying attention to your inhale and exhale, labeling the feelings you’re experiencing, using meditation apps, taking a yoga class, speaking to a therapist, etc. [8-9] 

Use Your Support System

Your partner, family, and friends are a great support system that you should be able to lean on when needed. Whether you need someone to help with an errand, watch your pets or kids, or you just want someone to talk to or distract you from what’s on your mind, your social support system can be a huge help for relieving stress. 

Try a New Hobby

For some people, channeling nervous or stressed energy into something can be a very therapeutic way to reduce and manage stress. [9] Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to crochet, learn a new instrument, or try yoga or pilates. Just be sure to speak to your healthcare provider about any new physical activities to ensure you’re keeping yourself and your baby safe and healthy. 

There is a long list of things you can do to manage stress and relax. If you’re having trouble managing stress on your own, speak to your healthcare provider about other options, including counseling. 

The Role of Natalist in Supporting Stress Management During Pregnancy

Fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum all come with their own challenges and stressors. At Natalist, we are committed to providing products that support you throughout your reproductive journey. Whether you’re looking for nutritional support, reliable tests, or self-care products, we’ve got you covered. When it comes to managing your stress, you may want to check out Magnesium Plus for restful sleep, Nausea Relief Tea for an organic herbal blend, Cooling Cream made with soothing peppermint and shea butter, or bundle and save on all of these products with the Pregnancy Self-Care Bundle. 


References:

  1. Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. Physiology, Stress Reaction. [Updated 2022 Sep 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
  2. Stress and your health. Medline Plus. April 30 2022. URL
  3. Will stress during pregnancy affect my baby? NIH Office of Communications. March 2023. URL
  4. Preterm Labor and Birth FAQ087. ACOG. April 2023. URL.
  5. Preterm Labor. Cleveland Clinic. November 2022. URL. Accessed July 2023. 
  6. Lilliecreutz, C., Larén, J., Sydsjö, G. et al. Effect of maternal stress during pregnancy on the risk for preterm birth. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 16, 5 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-015-0775-x
  7. Wadhwa PD, Entringer S, Buss C, Lu MC. The contribution of maternal stress to preterm birth: issues and considerations. Clin Perinatol. 2011;38(3):351-384. doi:10.1016/j.clp.2011.06.007
  8. Stress relievers: Tips to tame stress. Mayo Clinic. March 2021. URL
  9. Kruper, A. Campbell, K. Constantino, R. Downs, D. Geller, P. How to Manage Stress Naturally During Pregnancy. Society of Behavioral Medicine. Accessed July 2023. URL
  10. Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. 2015;8(3):143-152. doi:10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
  11. Arab A, Rafie N, Amani R, Shirani F. The Role of Magnesium in Sleep Health: a Systematic Review of Available Literature. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2023;201(1):121-128. doi:10.1007/s12011-022-03162-1

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