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Morning Sickness: A Mechanism for Protecting Mother and Embryo

Samuel M. Flaxman and Paul W. Sherman
The Quarterly Review of Biology
Vol. 75, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 113-148
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2664252
Page Count: 36
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Morning Sickness: A Mechanism for Protecting Mother and Embryo
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Abstract

Approximately two-thirds of women experience nausea or vomiting during the first trimester of pregnancy. These symptoms are commonly known as morning sickness. Hook (1976) and Profet (1988) hypothesized that morning sickness protects the embryo by causing pregnant women to physically expel and subsequently avoid foods that contain teratogenic and abortifacient chemicals, especially toxic chemicals in strong-tasting vegetables, caffeinated beverages and alcohol. We examined this hypothesis by comprehensively reviewing the relevant medical, psychological and anthropological literature. In its support, (i) symptoms peak when embryonic organogenesis is most susceptible to chemical disruption (weeks 6-18), (ii) women who experience morning sickness are significantly less likely to miscarry than women who do not (9 of 9 studies), (iii) women who vomit suffer fewer miscarriages than those who experience nausea alone, and (iv) many pregnant women have aversions to alcoholic and nonalcoholic (mostly caffeinated) beverages and strong-tasting vegetables, especially during the first trimester. Surprisingly, however, the greatest aversions are to meats, fish, poultry, and eggs. A cross-cultural analysis using the Human Relations Area Files revealed 20 traditional societies in which morning sickness has been observed and seven in which it has never been observed. The latter were significantly less likely to have animal products as dietary staples and significantly more likely to have only plants (primarily corn) as staples than the 20 societies in which morning sickness occurred. Animal products may be dangerous to pregnant women and their embryos because they often contain parasites and pathogens, especially when stored at room temperatures in warm climates. Avoiding foodborne microorganisms is particularly important to pregnant women because they are immunosuppressed, presumably to reduce the chances of rejecting tissues of their own offspring (Haig 1993). As a result, pregnant women are more vulnerable to serious, often deadly infections. We hypothesize that morning sickness causes women to avoid foods that might be dangerous to themselves or their embryos, especially foods that, prior to widespread refrigeration, were likely to be heavily laden with microorganisms and their toxins. The alternative hypotheses that morning sickness is (i) an epiphenomenon of mother-offspring genetic conflict or hormones associated with viable pregnancies, or (ii) an indicator to potential sexual partners and kin that the woman is pregnant, resulting in reduced sexual behavior and increased nepotistic aid, were not well supported. Available data are most consistent with the hypothesis that morning sickness serves an adaptive, prophylactic function.

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