Cranky About Cankles: Ways to Combat Swelling During Pregnancy
Feeling bloated during pregnancy? While inconvenient and uncomfortable, most forms of swelling—also known as edema—are perfectly normal for expecting mothers.1
Why does swelling occur during pregnancy?
Among the many changes the body goes through during pregnancy is its production and retention of water, blood, plasma, and other fluids to support the needs of the developing fetus.2,3
The swelling supports the mother’s development, as well. Not only does the extra fluid help her body expand to accommodate the baby, it also helps with her body’s necessary changes to prepare for the actual delivery process.1
Most mothers-to-be have swelling in their extremities, as well as in the face.1 Swelling tends to peak during the third trimester, often becoming more noticeable at the end of the day, when extra fluids, blood volume, and the growing baby can affect blood flow in the ankles and feet.4
What other factors affect swelling during pregnancy?
A number of factors in addition to the changes taking place in your body can affect swelling.1 These factors include: 1
- Prolonged standing or extensive time spent on your feet
- High level of physical activity
- Hot weather or overheating in general
- Extensive caffeine or sodium consumption
- Inadequate potassium consumption
While mild swelling is acceptable during pregnancy, a very sudden bout of edema could actually be more concerning.1 Contact your doctor immediately if the swelling is uneven and painful, if it comes on suddenly, or if it is accompanied by shortness of breath or chest pain.5
How can you address swelling during pregnancy?
There are a number of strategies you can leverage to reduce swelling during pregnancy.1, 5-7 You might make a point of:
- Sleeping on your left side
This strategy relieves the pressure of your inferior vena cava, the vein that transports blood from your lower body to your heart.7
- Engaging in regular physical activity
Gentle, low-impact exercises like swimming, walking, and biking can be highly therapeutic when you feel swollen.7
- Staying off your feet
It may sound counterintuitive after the last tip, but this recommendation focuses more on avoiding prolonged standing.7 If you can, sit down and stretch your calves by rotating your ankles and slowly flexing your feet.7 Or rest with your feet elevated.1,7
- Avoiding extreme heat
Steer clear of high-temperature activities like going in a sauna, and try not to spend too much time outside when it’s hot.1
- Drinking plenty of water
Keeping hydrated can flush the body and reduce fluid retention.1 If you’d like, you can also target swollen parts of the body with a cold compress.1
- Wearing compression stockings
If you’re interested in getting some extra support, you might look into wearing supportive tights or compression stockings.1 Contact your doctor for more information on how these garments can reduce swelling.1
- Opting for loose, comfortable clothing
Too-tight clothing can restrict your blood flow.7 Rather than wearing clothes that are tight around the wrists, ankles, or calves, aim to wear looser alternatives.1,7 You’ll feel more comfortable and offer your body some much-needed relief.
Dietary tips to reduce swelling
There are also a number of dietary tips that can help to reduce swelling during pregnancy. These include:
- Eating a balanced diet
You’ll want to gain a healthy amount of weight when you’re expecting: not too much, not too little (check with your doctor).6 Eating whole foods and incorporating protein into each meal can help you better manage swelling.6
- Consuming plenty of produce
Pregnant women should aim to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables each day—in a mix of colors if possible.6
- Getting enough potassium
Foods rich in potassium help to keep swelling at bay.5 Sweet potatoes, bananas, and avocado are delicious options that promote a chemically balanced body.5
- Limiting your salt, sugar, and fat intake
In addition to eating a balanced diet, limiting your intake of processed foods will lessen the fluid retention you may experience during pregnancy.6
- Selecting foods with high levels of vitamins C and E
Citrus, melons, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage are all high in vitamin C.6 Good sources of vitamin E include cashews, almonds, and sunflower seeds.6
Additional therapies to try
In addition, pregnant women might try to lessen swelling and related symptoms by engaging in therapies like:
Essential oils like lavender oil can ease the discomfort of swelling.6 Cypress oil, meanwhile, promotes good circulation and may help to ease varicose veins.6
You can either ask your partner to gently massage your feet and legs with the essential oil or soak your feet in a bowl of warm water mixed with essential oil.6
Reflexology is rooted in the idea that the hands and feet represent a map of the body, with certain points connecting to specific functions.6 A session may involve putting your feet up and then receiving a massage featuring pressure on certain parts of the lower legs and feet.6
While research offers mixed results on the link between reflexology and swelling, some experts believe the practice can minimize the discomfort associated with swelling.8
Interested in scheduling a reflexology session? Be sure to select a registered specialist who has extensive experience treating pregnant women.
Ultimately, there are a number of best practices for reducing swelling during pregnancy.1,5-8 If you still experience swelling after delivering your baby, simply be patient and allow your body time to heal.5 You may still be going through hormonal changes that exacerbate the swelling.5 And of course, feel free to reach out to your healthcare provider at any time if you have questions.
1. American Pregnancy Association Staff. Swelling During Pregnancy. https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/swelling-during-pregnancy/. American Pregnancy Association. Accessed August 13, 2019.
2. Widen et al. Body composition changes in pregnancy: measurement, predictors and outcomes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014;68(6):643-652.
3. Vricella LK. Emerging understanding and measurement of plasma volume expansion in pregnancy. 2017;106(Suppl 6):1620S-1625S.
4. Tanveer F et al. Frequency of lower extremity edema during 3rd trimester of pregnancy. SAJMS. 2015;1:41-43.
5. UnityPoint Health Staff. Things That Make You Swell When You’re Pregnant.https://www.unitypoint.org/livewell/article.aspx?id=e668bf44-c376-459e-b263-41f48810373a. LiveWell with UnityPoint Health. Accessed August 13, 2019.
6. Baby Centre Medical Advisory Board Staff. Swelling (natural remedies).https://www.babycentre.co.uk/a549316/swelling-natural-remedies. BabyCentre UK. Accessed August 13, 2019.
7. Tobah YB. What causes ankle swelling during pregnancy—and what can I do about it?https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/swelling-during-pregnancy/faq-20058467/. Mayo Clinic. Accessed August 13, 2019.
8. Embong NH et al. Revisiting reflexology: Concept, evidence, current practice, and practitioner training. J Tradit Complement Med. 2015;5(4):197–206.