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The Source of Severe Morning Sickness during Pregnancy, Understanding and Treatment

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Pregnancy is a transformative and joyous time for many women, but it can also come with its fair share of challenges. One such challenge is morning sickness, a condition that affects around 70% of pregnant women. While most cases of morning sickness are mild and manageable, some women experience severe symptoms that can lead to dehydration and even hospitalization. For years, scientists have been searching for the underlying cause of morning sickness in the hopes of developing more effective treatments. In a recent breakthrough, researchers have identified a hormone called GDF15 as a potential key player in the development of severe morning sickness.

Unraveling the Role of GDF15

A study published in the journal Nature shed light on the connection between GDF15 and morning sickness. The researchers, from the University of Southern California and the UK, found that higher levels of GDF15 in a pregnant woman’s blood may be responsible for the severity of morning sickness symptoms. This hormone, produced by the growing fetus, appears to trigger nausea and vomiting in susceptible individuals. Interestingly, the study also revealed that people with low levels of GDF15 when not pregnant may be more likely to develop significant morning sickness during pregnancy.

Understanding Morning Sickness

Before delving into the specifics of the study, let’s first understand what morning sickness is and how it affects pregnant women. Morning sickness is a term used to describe the nausea and vomiting that commonly occur during pregnancy, typically within the first trimester. Contrary to its name, morning sickness can strike at any time of the day. While most cases are mild and subside on their own, severe morning sickness, known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), can be debilitating and require medical intervention.

Hyperemesis gravidarum affects about 2% of pregnant women and can have serious consequences for both the mother and the baby. Dehydration, weight loss, and electrolyte imbalances are common complications of HG. In some cases, hospitalization is necessary to manage the symptoms and ensure the well-being of both the mother and the unborn child.

The Role of GDF15 in Morning Sickness

GDF15, or growth differentiation factor 15, is a hormone that is produced at low levels throughout the body. However, during pregnancy, the fetus produces an additional dose of GDF15, which can potentially trigger nausea and vomiting in susceptible individuals. The recent study found that higher levels of GDF15 in a pregnant woman’s blood were associated with more severe morning sickness symptoms. Conversely, lower levels of GDF15 before pregnancy seemed to be linked to a reduced risk of developing significant morning sickness.

The researchers also uncovered interesting genetic associations with GDF15 and morning sickness. People with a particular inherited blood disorder, characterized by high levels of GDF15 before pregnancy, were found to have a significantly lower risk of developing morning sickness during pregnancy. On the other hand, individuals with a rare genetic variant that leads to low levels of GDF15 were more likely to experience hyperemesis gravidarum.

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Implications for Treatment

The discovery of the role of GDF15 in morning sickness opens up new possibilities for the treatment and prevention of this condition. Currently, management strategies for morning sickness focus on relieving symptoms, such as taking anti-nausea medications, getting plenty of rest, and avoiding triggers. However, these approaches do not address the underlying cause of the condition.

With the newfound understanding of GDF15’s involvement in morning sickness, researchers are hopeful that targeted interventions can be developed. One potential approach is to block the effects of GDF15, which could potentially alleviate or even prevent severe morning sickness. Additionally, further research is underway to investigate the possibility of safely exposing individuals to GDF15 before pregnancy, building up their tolerance and reducing the risk of developing morning sickness.

The Personal Impact of Severe Morning Sickness

Severe morning sickness can have a profound impact on the lives of pregnant women and their families. The physical and emotional toll of constant nausea and vomiting can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of frustration, isolation, and even depression. The condition may also interfere with daily activities, work, and overall quality of life.

Dr. Marlena Fejzo, a geneticist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, knows firsthand the serious effects of severe morning sickness. After experiencing the loss of a baby due to hyperemesis gravidarum, she was motivated to delve into the causes of the condition. Driven by personal experience and a desire to help others, Dr. Fejzo has become a leading advocate for research and awareness around hyperemesis gravidarum.

The Importance of Raising Awareness

Despite affecting a significant number of pregnant women, morning sickness, particularly severe cases, has often been dismissed or trivialized. Many women have encountered healthcare professionals who downplay their symptoms or suggest that they will eventually subside. This lack of understanding and support can leave women feeling unheard and discouraged.

Raising awareness about the impact of severe morning sickness is crucial. It not only validates the experiences of those affected but also encourages further research and the development of more targeted treatments. Organizations like the HER Foundation, co-founded by Dr. Fejzo, play a vital role in advocating for women with hyperemesis gravidarum and providing resources and support.

Looking Ahead: The Journey Continues

While the discovery of the role of GDF15 in morning sickness is undoubtedly significant, there is still much work to be done. Researchers are actively pursuing further studies to unravel the complexities of this hormone and its interactions within the body. Understanding the underlying mechanisms and genetic factors involved in morning sickness will pave the way for more precise interventions and personalized treatments.

Pregnancy should be a time of joy and anticipation, and severe morning sickness should not overshadow the experience. With ongoing research and dedicated professionals like Dr. Fejzo leading the way, the future looks promising for finding effective solutions for morning sickness. By raising awareness, supporting affected individuals, and advancing scientific knowledge, we can strive to make pregnancy a smoother and more enjoyable journey for all women.


The recent breakthrough in understanding the role of GDF15 in severe morning sickness brings hope to pregnant women worldwide. By identifying this hormone as a potential key player in the development of the condition, researchers have opened doors to new treatment possibilities. The discovery paves the way for targeted interventions that address the underlying cause of morning sickness, offering relief and improved quality of life for pregnant women. As the journey continues, ongoing research and advocacy will shape the future of morning sickness management, ensuring a smoother and more enjoyable pregnancy experience for all.


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