New discovery for severe morning sickness: what you need to know

Bonnie Zell
Chief Medical Officer
at Delfina
min read

Most people who have been pregnant have stories about morning sickness. It’s one of the most uncomfortable and recognizable aspects of the first trimester—whether it’s in movies, in magazines, or simply strikes every time you smell that one specific food, morning sickness is often inescapable. But despite the ubiquity of morning sickness, there is very little research on severe morning sickness, called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). 

However, Dr. Maria Fejzo, a geneticist at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, and her colleagues have just made a discovery that has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of those who suffer from HG. Dr. Fejzo and her team have discovered that HG is potentially caused by the presence of one key hormone, GDF15. The amount of GDF15, in addition to a patient’s prior exposure to the hormone, determines the severity of the nausea and vomiting they experience.

Here’s what you need to know about hyperemesis gravidarum.

How do I know if I have hyperemesis gravidarum?

Because nausea and vomiting is a common symptom of pregnancy, it can be hard to tell whether what you’re feeling is normal. Hyperemesis gravidarum is the term for when your morning sickness becomes so extreme that you are vomiting multiple times a day. HG can cause dehydration and weight loss. If your morning sickness is debilitating, or persists past 12 weeks of pregnancy, talk to your doctor about HG.

Unfortunately, since it can be hard to assess the severity of morning sickness until several weeks into the pregnancy, sometimes doctors overlook patients’ symptoms. HG is understudied—Dr. Fejzo, the researcher behind the most recent study on GDF15, is one of the only researchers dedicated to HG. If your morning sickness is causing you to suffer, please speak up to your care team. 

How common is hyperemesis gravidarum?

HG is a leading cause of hospitalization during pregnancy, with around 2% of all pregnant patients hospitalized for HG to receive IV rehydration. Dr. Fejzo estimates that about 100,000 people experience HG in the U.S. each year. Kate Middleton suffered from HG during her pregnancies, and for many people her experience brought the condition into the public eye. 

What causes hyperemesis gravidarum?

As of this most recent study, the hypothesis is that HG is caused by the hormone GDF15 produced by the fetus. This reinforces the genetic association Dr. Fejzo’s team discovered in a previous study

How can I treat hyperemesis gravidarum?

If you have a mild case of HG, treatment options include dietary changes, anti-nausea medications. For severe HG, IV fluids are often required. Even if you’re experiencing “regular” morning sickness, don’t be afraid to ask your care team for recommendations on how to ease your symptoms. 

With this new discovery, there is significant potential for better treatment and even prevention. Patients could take a drug to block GDF15’s effect on the brain, and such a drug is currently being tested. To prevent HG, patients could also be exposed to GDF15 before pregnancy, as this has been shown to be effective in some populations.

How can Delfina help?

Using the Delfina Care platform, it’s easier for your doctor to recognize and understand your symptoms. One of the signs of HG is weight loss due to appetite loss and/or vomiting. With Delfina, you track your weight and provide your ongoing symptom information, and your doctor will be notified of a significant change or concerning trend. When you use Delfina Care, you also get access to a Delfina Guide, a trained doula who works with you personally over the course of your pregnancy journey. Not only are our Delfina Guides a non-clinical shoulder to lean on, but they’re also well-versed in recognizing potential clinical complications like HG, and can work with you to bring in your doctor if needed. 

Delfina is also laying the data infrastructure for studying and delivering future treatments that will be available to pregnant patients. As biomedical research in women’s health advances, Delfina is well positioned to rigorously evaluate treatments for pregnancy complications. With a more in-depth understanding of each patient’s clinical needs, we will get those treatments to the right patients at the right time.

If you’re interested in Delfina’s AI-driven pregnancy care offering, learn more here.

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