For example, some people will respond very well to a yoga-based program that focuses on relaxation and biofeedback, while other people may not have the time or inclination to participate in such a program. For others, the "Exercise" piece of SENSE - such as a daily walk around the neighborhood - might be the best approach. The key here is to find the right balance of each of the SENSE steps that work for YOU - and then DO them to control your cortisol levels.
An ideal SENSE program for a health pregnant woman might look something like this:
Stress management = Get a good book and spend 30 minutes "losing yourself" in it every day. Research from the University of Melbourne shows that even these short breaks from our stressful days can help to control maternal cortisol levels and reduce stress hormone exposure to the fetus.
Exercise = Get out your walking shoes and spend 20 minutes moving your body. Because cortisol is telling you to "Fight!" or to "Run Away!" - getting up and doing some exercise will help your body to "use" that excess cortisol and get levels back down to normal. Even a small amount of low-intensity exercise - such as walking with a friend, or pushing a baby stroller, will be enough to provide benefits.
Nutrition = Make sure that every time you eat - whether it be a main-meal or a little snack - you're consuming a balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. This means no plain bagels for breakfast - but a half of a whole grain bagel (carbohydrate) with an egg (protein), and some butter or cheese (fat) would be fine. This balanced combination of nutrients has been shown by researchers, at the University of Connecticut, to help control cortisol levels better than the popular low-carb and low-fat diets.
Supplementation = When it comes to using dietary supplements, the rule of "buyer beware" is in effect - especially during pregnancy. As a nutritionist, I recommend that almost everybody, including pregnant women, take a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement to ensure adequate intake of all essential nutrients. In terms of cortisol-control, the most important nutrients for maintaining a normal stress response are calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, and several of the B-complex vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, B6, B12, and pantothenic acid) - all of which can be obtained in a well-balanced multivitamin supplement. A terrific resource for additional information about dietary supplements is SupplementWatch, an independent educational company that receives NO money from supplement companies (so they provide a very balanced perspective about what supplements can and cannot do for you).
Evaluation = This is where, every month or so, you ask yourself, "How's it going" in terms of your stress levels and your cortisol-control regimen. During particularly stressful times, you might want to focus on more aspects of the SENSE program than during less stressful times. You can also use this evaluation period to reflect on what aspects of SENSE worked particularly well for you and which did not - so when stress hits you hard, you know which tools are the most effective ones for you.
The concept of cortisol-control is important at every stage of pregnancy - before, during, and after. In the "before" pregnancy situation, elevated cortisol is associated with reduced fertility and lower conception rates. In the "during" period, elevated maternal cortisol levels are associated with higher blood pressure, memory problems, and depression in both the mother and the offspring. During the "after" pregnancy period, elevated cortisol levels are associated with weight gain (or inability to lose pregnancy weight), increased appetite (sweet cravings), mood-swings, depression, reduced sex drive, and suppressed immune system function (more colds). By controlling your cortisol levels at each stage of pregnancy, as well as during the pre- and post- pregnancy periods, you'll be optimizing overall body metabolism and enhancing your overall health.