Inuit model Willow Allen has 'severe' pregnancy sickness — what to know about hyperemesis gravidarum

Majority of women experience nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, but some have it severe.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Canadian model Willow Allen had some challenges in her pregnancy. (Photo via Instagram/@willow.allen)
Canadian model Willow Allen had some challenges in her pregnancy. (Instagram/@willow.allen)

Early in her pregnancy, Inuit fashion model Willow Allen couldn't even get out of bed and was throwing up every single day — beyond the normal "morning sickness."

For some, pregnancy sickness can be so bad it can lead to weight loss, dehydration and in some severe cases, hospitalization.

Allen tells Yahoo Canada she tried everything to make her first pregnancy less challenging.

"Nothing really helped at all… even with the medication I was taking, I was still throwing up all throughout the day… I couldn't even keep water down. And then when I'm not throwing up, I'm just laying in bed with intense stomach pains," Allen said.

Dr. Cindy Maxwell, the medical content director of First Exposure, explained most women like Allen would experience some form of pregnancy sickness, which might include nausea, vomiting or a lack of appetite. But when it becomes so severe that a person is dehydrated and in need of IV, the condition is then called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG).

What exactly is this condition and is there a cure? Here's what you need to know.

What causes pregnancy sickness?

Pregnancy sickness, also known as morning sickness, is typically at its worst early in the day, according to the Better Health Channel, "but it can strike at any point during the day or night. For most women, morning sickness begins around the fourth week of pregnancy and resolves by weeks 12 to 14."

Maxwell said pregnancy sickness and HG is most likely related to changes in hormone levels that increase pregnant women's sensitivity and awareness of nausea, or triggers of nausea.

"There are hormonal effects, particularly the ones that come from the placenta that cause our GI system to basically slow down in pregnancy," the OBGYN explained.

She said some women become nauseated because food is moving through the digestive system at a much slower pace, which tends to make them eat less because everything is taking so long to move through the digestive tract.

Young millennial woman suffering with stomach pain, feeling unwell sitting on bed in the morning. HG is most likely related to changes in hormone levels in pregnant people. (Getty)
HG is most likely related to changes in hormone levels in pregnant people. (Getty)

According to a study published in Nature in December, a team of U.S. and U.K. researchers found that a hormone called GDF15 produced by the fetus, and a mother's sensitivity to the hormone, are the causes behind nausea and vomiting in pregnancy.

"There are probably a few others, but that's an important one because of the recent research," said Maxwell.

The study said 80 per cent of women experience nausea and vomiting at some point during pregnancy and that an additional two per cent experience its extreme form, hyperemesis gravidarum.

"It is quite clear that there are some people with greater sensitivity to pregnancy sickness… If you had pregnancy sickness in a previous pregnancy, or if you're somebody who seems to be predisposed to getting motion sickness."

She also said some have genetic variants like GDF15 that makes them more sensitive as evidenced by the new research.

Is there a cure for pregnancy sickness?

Maxwell said there is no cure for pregnancy sickness and that it resolves once a pregnancy is over. However, there are ways to treat it.

To help control the nausea, Maxwell suggested holding off on taking your full pregnancy vitamins, taking folic acid and watching out for food that has a strong taste or smell that could trigger nausea.

"People often try ginger to help control symptoms. There are also acupressure points in our bodies that can sometimes help us control our reaction to motion sickness and pregnancy sickness," said Maxwell.

According to My Health Alberta, acupressure is based on Eastern medicine practices used to open up blocked energy pathways in the body, which is done by having the person or a practitioner press a small area of the body to treat a given condition.

Young woman having a hand massage in a spa. About 25 years old, Caucasian female.
Those with sickness or nausea can try acupressure. (Getty)

In the case of pregnancy sickness, "constant pressure on the P6 point is used to prevent or reduce nausea. The P6 point is on the inner side of your arm, in line with your middle finger," My Health Alberta added.

"It is close to your wrist, one-sixth of the way between your wrist and elbow. You can press on your arm with a thumb or finger or try wearing wristbands (such as Sea-Bands) that press a plastic disc on the P6 point on each arm," the website adds.

If none of those measures work, Maxwell said medication can be offered, and it's usually a combination of pyridoxine and doxylamine, which help with pregnancy sickness symptoms.

"If those don't work, then we can move to other medications that have a more potent effect on controlling nausea," she said. "Those types of medications are generally given under the supervision of a physician or other provider because it tends to mean that the symptoms are more severe for that person. So they probably need a bit of extra monitoring."

What is being done to help with pregnancy sickness?

Maxwell claimed the new discovery of GDF15 as it relates to HG is exciting because it allows researchers and health providers to imagine new possible types of treatments, and even future prevention of pregnancy sickness — especially in its severe form.

"As medication research goes forward, it may be possible to block the effects of the hormone… So maybe we'll be able to develop a compound that actually blocks the effect of the hormone, or maybe there'll be a way to alter how much of the hormone stays in your system," Maxwell said.

A lot of people don't understand how bad it really can be.Willow Allen, model

Pregnancy sickness can have a big impact on mental health after a while, if a person who's pregnant is sick for weeks on end. It can even impair a person's ability to carry on with their life and responsibilities.

"New approaches to treating pregnancy sickness, I think would be very much welcome by healthcare providers, by patients and families," Maxwell said.

The next step for the research team, according to the Nature study's news release, is to test whether "priming women with GDF15 exposure prior to pregnancy can reduce nausea and vomiting or even prevent HG."

For soon-to-be mom Allen, it's important to talk about these struggles. She said while pregnancy sickness is commonly known, not a lot of people know how difficult it can really be.

"Sometimes I remember seeing how in movies people find out they're pregnant when they throw up and they'd be completely fine, but a lot of people don't understand how bad it really can be," said Allen.

Allen's baby is due this month, and she "cannot wait" for the coming weeks.

She said now that there is more awareness being raised on pregnancy sickness, it makes her hopeful and excited.

"The fact that research is going into it more and figuring out why morning sickness happens and hopefully coming up with a cure solution to it is a really exciting step in a good direction."

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