June 24, 2024

Scientists Pinpoint Hormone Behind Debilitating Morning Sickness, Raising Hopes for New Treatments

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Dec 17, 2023

A major scientific breakthrough has uncovered the likely cause of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (NVP), commonly known as morning sickness. The culprit appears to be a hormone called GDF15, which is produced by the placenta.

Landmark Study Links GDF15 Levels to Severity of Symptoms

A study published this week in Nature has identified a strong association between blood levels of GDF15 and the severity of NVP symptoms. The research was led by Dr. Gideon Nave at the University of Pennsylvania and involved analyzing data from over 5 million pregnant women.

Women with hyperemesis gravidarum – an extreme, debilitating form of morning sickness – were found to have GDF15 levels 2-4 times higher than average. The study suggests sensitivity to this hormone, which helps support the developing fetus, is what drives nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.

“This is the first time that a causal factor for NVP has been definitively established,” Dr. Nave told The Guardian. “While nausea and vomiting in pregnancy has been documented for thousands of years, we finally have a real clue into what is causing this difficult-to-treat condition.”

Breakthrough Opens Door to Better Treatments

The revelation that GDF15 lies behind severe morning sickness raises hopes that new treatments could be developed to block the hormone or its effects. Such therapies would be eagerly welcomed by those suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, which can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, and dehydration in mothers along with higher risks for babies.

“This changes everything,” said Dr. Manisha Ballal, an obstetrician at Duke University who was not involved with the research. “We can now specifically look at treating or preventing morning sickness by modulating GDF15 rather than using medications that simply ease symptoms.”

One specialist called the findings “the most significant advancement in understanding NVP in over 70 years.” Pharmaceutical companies have already begun early work on developing the first morning sickness drug targeting GDF15. Researchers say any treatment would likely be administered only in the first trimester when NVP occurs.

Calls for Improved Support Based on New Insights

The study has also triggered calls for better support services informed by the fresh medical understanding of this common pregnancy complication.

“For far too long, morning sickness has been trivialized and misunderstood,” said Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. “The physical and mental health impacts can be devastating when severe. This scientific advance now needs to shape how we care for those who suffer from it.”

Advocacy groups such as Pregnancy Sickness Support have campaigned for many years to raise awareness and are now emphasizing the latest scientific evidence about GDF15’s role. “We desperately need a shift in attitudes,” said chair Caitlin Dean. “The knowledge we now have should give confidence to moms that this is a real biological condition.”

Wider Implications of GDF15 Findings

Interestingly, the study also gives clues into why some pregnant women escape morning sickness altogether. Around 1 in 5 mothers-to-be have blood levels of GD15 too low to trigger nausea and vomiting symptoms.

Researchers speculate that genetics and estrogen levels may influence GDF15 secretion and sensitivity. Further work is needed to unravel these factors, which could someday make it possible to predict who will develop mild or severe NVP.

The insights into GDF15 may even offer clues into a longstanding evolutionary puzzle – why has morning sickness persisted? Dr Nave’s team suggests that nausea and vomiting during early pregnancy may reflect a protective adaptation. Potentially harmful foods are ejected to shield the fetus.

“An adverse reaction to GDF15 may essentially signal that the womb environment is suboptimal and prompt mothers to temporarily change diets,” explained study co-author Dr Rimma Belayev. “This would reduce exposure to foods containing toxins or pathogens until the placenta and fetus are less vulnerable.”

Ongoing Research into GDF15 Mechanisms

While the new study transformed understanding of NVP triggers, important questions remain. Upcoming research will focus on exactly how GDF15 elicits sickness symptoms when it reaches the bloodstream during pregnancy.

“This opens up totally new directions for research,” said ob/gyn Dr Marlena Fejzo, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Now that we have the key player, we can delineate how GDF15 acts in the body and brain.”

Experts predict advances in unraveling these mechanisms within several years. “The fact we can now tap into a robust body of existing knowledge on GDF15 in other disease areas should greatly accelerate discoveries,” Fejzo added.

Indeed, the hormone is already being investigated for its links to conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. These efforts will likely have synergies with maternal health research geared toward better coping with and treating morning sickness.


The revelation that the GDF15 hormone underlies nausea and vomiting during pregnancy represents a seismic shift in scientific understanding. The breakthrough discovery points to future treatments finally being within reach to better manage a condition that, while often normalized, can severely impact life quality and antenatal care for many expecting mothers.

While practical clinical applications may still be years away, experts say the symbolic significance for patients should not be underestimated. “Women dealing with hyperemesis gravidarum now know this is not ‘in their heads’ but based in their biochemistry,” said Dr Nave. “I hope this brings validation and comfort while we build on this knowledge.”

Key Points
The hormone GDF15, made by the placenta, has been found to likely cause nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (NVP)
Blood levels of GDF15 strongly match severity of morning sickness symptoms
Discovery opens prospects of new treatments targeting GDF15 to prevent debilitating symptoms
Calls growing to improve medical/social support for those with severe NVP now an underlying cause is known
Findings may also offer clues into evolutionary origins of morning sickness in pregnancy



AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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