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New Study Confirms the Genetic Cause of Extreme Morning Sickness

Building on past studies, researchers have determined elevated levels of GDF15 are the culprit. Scientists are hopeful the discovery will lead to better medications and prevention.
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By Wyndi Kappes, Associate Editor
Updated December 14, 2023
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There’s your run-of-the-mill morning sickness during pregnancy, and then there’s hyperemesis gravidarum. While the latter affects only about 2 percent of pregnancies, its effects are devasting. From rapid weight loss to dehydration, this extreme form of morning sickness can land you in the hospital and even affect baby’s development.

Despite stars like Kate Middleton and Amy Schumer speaking out about their experiences, research has often lagged behind the real need for years now. But there seems to be great news coming for those suffering from severe morning sickness.

Scientists believe they have successfully pinpointed the genetic cause of hyperemesis gravidarum and may be able to use this discovery to develop better prevention methods or new medications. The new research—published on December 13 in the Nature Journal—builds upon a 2022 study that linked high levels of GDF15 to morning sickness. A cellular stress hormone that is found in high levels in the placenta, it’s responsible for sending signals to the part of the brain that controls nausea and appetite.

To confirm the link between GDF15 and hyperemesis gravidarum, the scientists analyzed blood samples and questionnaires from hundreds of mothers through 23andMe. The researchers found that the amount of GDF15 hormone circulating in a woman’s blood during pregnancy — as well as her exposure to it before pregnancy — drives the severity of her symptoms.

For example, researchers found that women in Sri Lanka with a rare blood disorder causing chronically high levels of GDF15 rarely experienced nausea or vomiting in pregnancy. “It completely obliterated all the nausea. They pretty much have next to zero symptoms in their pregnancies,” said Dr. Stephen O’Rahilly, an endocrinologist at Cambridge who led the research told The New York Times.

Dr. O’Rahilly hypothesizes that prolonged exposure to GDF15 before pregnancy could have a protective effect, making women less sensitive to the sharp surge in the hormone caused by the developing fetus. Other prevention methods and medications could also be established to help. From taking medications to block the hormone’s effects in the brain to establishing immunity by dosing your way up with low levels of the hormone, either way it’s exciting to have hope on the horizon for so many mothers in need.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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