High cholesterol levels during pregnancy are necessary to make steroid hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which are vital for carrying a pregnancy to term. Your growing baby uses cholesterol at a high rate for healthy brain and limb development.
"There are essential partnerships that occur to support the developing pregnancy," says Dr. Julie Scott, an OB/GYN and medical director of labor and delivery at University of Colorado Hospital. "The mother, placenta and fetus have specific enzymes to alter and change cholesterol into functional hormones."
Cholesterol levels increase naturally during the second trimester, peak during the third and typically return to normal about four weeks after delivery. Scott says most cardiologists recommend that bad LDL levels be less than 100 mg/dL and the good HDL cholesterol should be greater than 60 mg/dL. When a women is pregnant, her cholesterol levels increase by 25 to 50 percent, and fortunately, HDL levels seem to increase more.
"We don't often actively treat high cholesterol in pregnant women unless there are extreme concerns for cardiovascular risk," Scott says. "Pregnancy is a small window of time in a woman's life, and the potential to cause harm to the fetus must be weighed."
High cholesterol during pregnancy can lead to pregnancy-induced hypertension, which can threaten the life of both the mother and child. Low cholesterol can lead to premature labor and low birth weight.
Studies have also shown that high cholesterol has had adverse affects on a mother's offspring, both in the womb and later in life. For example, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, children whose mothers had high cholesterol before becoming pregnant are five times as likely to have high cholesterol as adults.
Under normal conditions, doctors may prescribe statins to lower cholesterol levels; however, studies have shown that these cholesterol-reducing drugs are connected to abnormalities in babies' physiological development. While results are limited, Scott still recommends stopping the use of these medications if you are pregnant or are trying to conceive.
"For women who have severely elevated cholesterol levels, there is the potential to use bile acid-binding resins to reduce cholesterol," Scott says. "Unfortunately, women using these medicines tend to complain of severe gastrointestinal problems."
Instead, the best ways to maintain healthy cholesterol levels during pregnancy are to eat a well-balanced diet with fruits, vegetables and fiber; avoid saturated fats; and exercise at a level approved by your doctor. Also keep in mind that your body only needs about 300 additional calories per day to support you and your baby.