A healthier mom Local experts warn of hidden hazards, provide solutions Moms’ hidden health risks

There’s a good reason flight attendants insist that in an emergency you put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child with his or hers.

If you pass out first, you both could be doomed! It’s a good metaphor for parenting, too. In order to take the best possible care of our families, we first must take care of ourselves.

After all, if we’re not healthy, it’s a lot harder to meet the demands of parenting, let alone be an example for our children to teach them the importance of taking care of themselves.

It’s crucial to eat healthy and exercise as much as possible. But even when moms make their own health a priority, there are some less obvious health risks that could thwart their efforts.

We talked to some Lowcountry doctors and health providers to learn how to minimize the risks.

Sleep can turn problematic for moms with children of all ages. Parents of infants are up and down during the night taking care of feedings, but parents with older children often have trouble sleeping either because they worry about their kids or they’re doing so many things at once during the day they have a hard time winding down at night.

Being sleep-deprived might seem par for the course, but it can have a big impact on your overall health. According to the National Center on Sleep Disorders, 30 percent to 40 percent of adults say they have symptoms of insomnia within a year, while 10 percent to 15 percent report chronic insomnia. People with sleep deprivation are more likely to become overweight or obese, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders.

Sleep-deprived people aren’t as aware as they would be otherwise, and it makes parents more likely to make mistakes that could affect themselves and their kids. For example, 37 percent of people in a National Sleep Foundation Poll admitted to falling asleep while driving.

Going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine and alcohol and not having a heavy meal right before bed can help people who struggle with sleeping problems. Exercise, medications and counseling also can help, and there’s always the option of going to see a sleep specialist or sleep lab such as the Sleep Lab at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Parents today juggle so many things: their own work, their kids’ schools, homework and other activities. While most of us recognize when we’re feeling stressed out, we might not realize what a negative impact it can have on physical health.

Stress can cause headaches, upset stomach, heightened blood pressure, chest pains and sleeping problems. Over time, it can turn into depression and/or anxiety.

Luckily, there are many ways to combat stress, including exercise, changing the way we think about stress and learning tools to prevent and manage it.

“We often attribute the development of stress to external life circumstances, such as managing children’s schedules, striving to be the perfect mother, wife, friend, sister or just keeping up with our daily to-do list,” said Hallie Clark, a clinical counselor and co-founder of Charleston Wellness Group.

The group helps people manage stress through yoga therapy, counseling and health coaching.

“In reality, stress begins with our thoughts. It begins in the mind and then shows up in the body when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, thus placing us into the fight-or-flight response,” she says.

Clark recommends that when you notice you’re feeling stressed by a thought (for example you think your child will feel you’re a bad mother if you’re late to pick her up from school again) slow down, take a deep breath and ask yourself three questions: What am I thinking about this circumstance? Do I know this to be true for a fact? Does this make me feel the way I want to feel?

When you break it down this way, often you realize the thought that is causing the stress is not a fact, she says.

If the thought doesn’t make you feel the way you want to feel, try to redirect your thinking, Clark suggests.

She advises to think, “I am doing the best that I can right now in this moment. Life is flexible, there is room for me to make mistakes.”

If you have a difficult time managing stress, your doctor might suggest ways to get more exercise and other stress outlets into your schedule, refer you to a counselor such as Clark, or even prescribe medication to help you through a tough time.

Stress can lead to depression, but there are other factors that can contribute, such as genetics, substance abuse, insomnia and even gender.

In fact, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Depression increases the risk of obesity, substance abuse and even suicide. When you’re depressed or anxious, your parenting skills might be compromised, too, says Dr. Eleanor Oakman of Harborside OB/GYN.

Depression often is treated with medication, counseling and lifestyle changes.

New mothers are susceptible to postpartum depression or a less severe version of it sometimes called “the baby blues,” spurred on by a combination of hormonal imbalance and the high stress that comes with caring for a newborn.

Oakman estimates postpartum depression affects 5 percent to 10 percent of new moms, and the baby blues affect 30 percent to 40 percent.

“When it’s abnormal is when you don’t want to get up or take care of the baby, don’t want to shower or leave the house,” Oakman says.

Mothers who experience postpartum depression should let their doctor know so he or she can work with them to manage it through medication or counseling.

Many moms are good about monitoring their children’s media use, but they might not think to set parameters on their own, which, in the worst cases, can turn into an addiction.

“We’re living in a society where we’re all plugged in all the time, and what I see is a lot of people missing out on their kids because they’re always looking at their phone,” said Dr. Natalie Gregory of Lowcountry OB/GYN.

It is possible to become addicted to your iPhone, Facebook feed or email, she said, adding that this can pose a particular risk while driving when you look at your phone or text.

A technology addiction can be identified in the same way as other addictions: if you notice you get irritable when you have to be away from it or if it’s having a negative impact on your relationships. Too much time in front of a screen also can cause headaches and insomnia.

Any doctor or counselor should be able to help if you feel like you have a problem, but you can start by taking small steps to cut back, such as turning the phone off in the evenings after work. Gregory recommends a no-cell-phone policy in the car for all parents or suggests allowing kids to play games on your phone while you’re driving.

Vitamin D deficiency is a common issue that doesn’t often get diagnosed because there aren’t many clear symptoms, says Oakman. Those at risk include vegetarians (particularly vegans, who don’t consume dairy products since vitamin D is found in dairy) or people who don’t get out in the sun much (since the body produces vitamin D in response to sunlight).

“We don’t want people to risk skin cancer, so we talk about ways to supplement,” Oakman says.

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to bigger problems, including rickets, cardiovascular disease, depression, low energy and increased risk of osteoporosis. Research suggests that getting enough vitamin D also might play a role in preventing diabetes, hypertension and multiple sclerosis.

If you think you might be at risk, your doctor can do a blood test to find out for sure, or you may just want to start taking a supplement or consuming more vitamin D fortified foods, such as dairy, to make sure you’re getting enough in your diet.

Many are aware that obesity has several negative effects on overall health, but what if you’re just carrying a few extra pounds? “You think that extra 10 or 15 pounds is just your ‘mommy weight,’ but it can be really detrimental,” Dr. Natalie Gregory says.

You might not realize that carrying just a few extra pounds can be a health risk because you might not look unhealthy. But that little bit of weight can actually increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and many other diseases if it puts you into the overweight category.

The good news is there are many ways to get help from nutrition coaches, personal trainers and even some weight-loss programs. Talk to your doctor to find a program that will fit your lifestyle. As an added bonus, healthy eating and exercise required to lose weight can help relieve stress, too, which can keep even more health hazards at bay.