Avoiding Stretch Marks during Pregnancy?
For those of you who know me well, you might be a little surprised that I'm writing about this topic – it's not the sort of thing I usually choose to write about. But I have been asked about this SO MANY TIMES that I have to accept that it is something that a lot of us are worried about.
Whatsmore, there is so much crap advice out there, and so many women are wasting their money on expensive lotions and potions that just don't work (and are probably full of junk - and you know they just re-bottle the same damn body cream that you buy for a fraction of the price) when there are a few, far more effective (though less sexy) things that they could be doing. I do have some thoughts on the topic as well as my own "routine" of sorts to share with you, that are based in LOGIC and understanding about how the body works, I might add.
It is difficult to find sound, well-thought out, logical blog posts or information on topics like these (rather than those just recommending one product over another), so here's my attempt to do just that.
I DON'T have any creams or pills or programmes to sell you, however. Just some sound, logical advice and a few simple tips (and hopefully steering you away from any unnecessary, expensive and ineffective treatments).
To me it seems that there are 4 major factors that contribute to whether or not you will get stretch marks:
Rate and amount of weight gain
Nutrition and current health status including your fitness level
There is nothing we can do about the first factor – choose your parents wisely!
The second and third we have a little control over. If there is really sudden and drastic weight gain, this might pull at the skin more that doesn't have a good chance to adapt to the changes. You can't really control the growth of your belly beyond trying not to put on too much weight too quickly (remember, weight gain of 11-15kg is the range we're generally looking for), but that's kind of dumb advice.
The third factor is something we can start to play with – but it will have a lot to do with how healthy you have been the years leading up to your pregnancy – if you're reading this now, you're probs preggo and it's a bit late for that, but if you are by any chance reading this to plan for a pregnancy a few years down the line, get fit and healthy now!
You can of course control your nutrition during pregnancy, (well, unless you have horrible nausea and can only eat bread and butter for the first few months). It's probably a good idea to take a good multivitamin and omega 3 (but you should check that with your health-care provider). Beyond that, I'm not going to spend time on this post talking about how to eat to avoid stretch-marks, because it will be the same as for general nutrition advice – lots of fruits and veggies, fibre, a variety of fats, minimizing processed foods… nothing new. (Ignore any special diets that claim to prevent stretch marks!).
So far, not much great advice to give, huh?
The fourth factor – blood flow to the area is where I think we can do a few key things that might make a difference. Here are a few things I am doing:
Anything that gets the heart-rate up and gets blood flowing to the whole body, blood flow will increase to the abdomen too (better than any gadgets). If you can aim to get your heart-rate up for 20 minutes 3 times a week that's great (although current recommendations are 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week - that can seem a lot for some of us).
We know that people with better cardiovascular fitness have better blood flow, more capillaries and more efficient gas exchange at the tissues, so just improving your cardiovascular fitness will improve the flow of blood and nutrients to the entire body.
Doing some of the pregnancy and birth-prep type movements like hip circles, wiggling your hips and waist around might help too.
2. Cold Water Exposure
A cold blast at the end of every shower for 30-60 seconds will boost blood flow. If you can get into a plunge pool at any point, that would probably be even better.
Swimming is a great option, since it combines these two factors.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing
I talk a lot about proper breathing mechanics in the context of the abdominal muscles, diastasis recti and the pelvic floor, but it contributes to good health in soooo many other ways. One of which is blood flow to all these muscles and tissues (so the skin too). Imagine if you are breathing using your diaphragm, down into your belly and pelvic floor, your abdominal muscles and surrounding tissues are expanding and contracting with the breath. This gentle stretching and recoil of the tissues throughout the day is likely to increase blood flow to that area. The advantages of proper breathing mechanics are so far flung in the body that this seems like a negligible factor, but it must contribute to proper blood flow to these tissues.
Exfoliation is probably a great way to get blood flowing to the skin in a specific area, but again, it drives me bananas that women buy expensive exfoliators (that are filled with little bits of plastic) when there are free or cheap alternatives available (that are probably way better for you).
I live near the beach (and I have been pregnant though the summer), so every time I go I sit in the shallow water and rub sand all over my belly, bum and thighs (and shins – but that won't help with stretch marks!).
If you can't do this, you could just use a course sea salt in oil (like olive or almond oil) in the shower at home. Turn of the water, slather it on for a few minutes and then rinse it all off. Super- smooth baby skin.
Alternatively, you could use a body brush (dry if you like) or some kind of exfoliation sponge, whatever works for you, it's all the same basically! (Though manufacturers and zealots will try to convince you that their product is different).
If the skin's a little red, that's probably a sign of the blood flow you're looking for!
It's probably just as much about the act of rubbing your skin as it is about the exfoliation. Rubbing the skin even without an exfoliator will increase blood flow to it.
(Getting some sunshine to the belly seems like a good idea too, though it doesn't deserve it's own point).
This is probably the one that most women are familiar with (but probably the least important).
It probably won't help you much to spend your money on expensive creams that have this and that active ingredient. Do you know how they work? Does it actually make sense to you? They don't make sense to me, and they don't line up with anything that I know about science or physiology or the human body. I use almond oil to moisturize my skin – especially on and around my belly – it's quite light and easily absorbed, though you could probably use any natural oil, it would do the same thing. (but you could also just use a regular body cream too, if you prefer).
Much like with exfoliation, it's probably not just about the cream or oil itself, but just as much about the actual act of rubbing your skin, which will stimulate blood flow to the area. Doing so a few times a week could help. (Getting a massage would do the same thing – but as if you needed another good reason to get a massage, though.)
I fear that much of this will fall on deaf ears. I've had a similar conversation with many friends who reply with "no, this cream/oil/whatever really works! My sister used it and she didn't get any stretch marks!" I hope I don't have to explain to you why this kind of reasoning is faulty (but I will anyway). How do you know that it was the cream that prevented it? Maybe she wouldn't have had stretch marks anyway. Maybe she also did one or all of the things I mention above.
The same response can be applied of course, in reverse, to the opposite line of argument "X cream didn't work because I used it and I got stretch marks". How do you know that they wouldn't be way worse if you hadn't used the cream?
(Likewise, if you have stretch marks and use a certain formula to lessen them and it "works", how do you know that time hasn't just improved the appearance of said stretch marks? Or that you started eating better or sleeping more)
For these reasons it is hard to prove scientifically what works and what doesn't – how do you judge such a thing in a study? Take 1000 women, half use the cream and half don't – how do you account for factors like overall health and blood flow, exposure to cold water, nutrition and genetics? You can't.
Ultimately, you could apply that same argument to everything that I have written here in this blog post, so we might as well all just give up the fight with stretch marks and accept our fate!
While this is technically true, there are a couple of points I would like to leave you with:
1. It makes more sense to ensure good blood flow to the area, as this will improve the health of the skin, as opposed to this cream does XY and Z to prevent stretch marks. I'm a big fan of addressing the root cause of everything when it comes to health and fitness, rather than just putting a plaster on the symptom that has surfaced. Most of the things in the list are things you should be doing anyway and that have other benefits (like breathing and eating properly and exercise) – good health starts with these basic things and it carries over to lots of areas of the body (including the appearance and elasticity of the skin) instead of just taking a specific supplement, some kind of oil or collagen to try to fix the problem, we should be looking at overall health. Lots of different problems have the same "solution" – eat well, exercise, lower stress, be healthy… in the words of James Smith, a lot of these topical treatments are "icing on the cake that you haven't fucking baked yet".
2. All of these suggestions are either cheap (or free) or you should be doing them anyway – so you might as well give it a go!