First, here's why stress can be harmful: Stress hormones and other bodily reactions stimulate the immune and other systems into overproduction of inflammatory substances. They summon the immune system's warrior cells to battle — even if there's not an actual bad guy, like a virus or bacteria, to fight off. That all-revved-up-without-a-good-reason response changes the way the body makes new immune cells, and seems to increase production of pro-inflammatory immune cells. So the fetus is growing in an overcharged, inflammatory environment.
Research also shows that what's transmitted from mom to baby isn't just the hard-wired genetic code (DNA) that is locked in at conception: Environmental trauma like stress can turn some of your sister's genes on or off, and those changes often show up in the fetus' genes as well!
Stress also affects the child as it's being born. While passing through the birth canal, a newborn picks up bacteria from the mother's vagina that becomes a part of the child's microbiome (gut bacteria). But your sister's balance of good and bad gut bacteria is affected by constant stress (bad takes over).
Animal studies also have shown that an offspring's brain development can be negatively affected by a stress-caused imbalance in a pregnant mother's biome.
So, to keep everyone de-stressed and healthy, help your sister enjoy light cardio exercise for 20 minutes, three times a week. (Check Sharecare.com's “pregnancy exercise” for advice on doing it safely.) It's been shown to improve fetal brain development. And have her try 10 minutes of mindful meditation in the morning and before bed. It helps manage stress, improves sleep (it's so important during pregnancy) and will give her more energy to deal with daily challenges.
Q: My best friend's husband came back from Iraq and probably is going to need care for the rest of his life. How can I help my friend so that she doesn't become a casualty as well? — Stephie P., Worchester, Mass.
A: That's very caring of you, and there are several things you can do. First and most important, find her a support group for people who are going through similar challenges. There are several programs through the Veterans Administration; check www.va.gov for what's available on a national, state and local level. The Wounded Warrior Project ( www.woundedwarriorproject.org) offers family support and can help untangle VA benefits. The Family Caregiver Alliance ( www.caregiver.org) has a state-by-state listing of local caregiver support groups.
Next, make sure she takes care of herself (you're going to be a caregiver to her) so she doesn't burn out. Signs include getting sick frequently; snapping at everyone; being sad one moment, furious the next; not having an independent social life; and never exercising. (“6 Signs of Caregiver Burnout” is good advice you can find on the AARP website, www.aarp.org.)
Make sure she eats well and regularly; if you're around, help with meals. And identify specific people who will agree to help her out — picking up the mail, filling prescriptions, grocery shopping, even vacuuming and doing the laundry. If possible, schedule a morning or evening walk with you and other pals.
Despite what you do, it might be difficult, at first, for your friend to take advantage of available support groups (and friends' helping hands). Don't push, but gently suggest you go with her as she tries to find a group meeting that suits her. Good luck to all.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Mike Roizen is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.