Chemical and mechanical adaptations of the respiratory system at rest and during exercise in human pregnancy

Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007 Dec;32(6):1239-50. doi: 10.1139/H07-120.


Human pregnancy is characterized by significant increases in ventilatory drive both at rest and during exercise. The increased ventilation and attendant hypocapnia of pregnancy has been attributed primarily to the stimulatory effects of female sex hormones (progesterone and estrogen) on central and peripheral chemoreflex drives to breathe. However, recent research from our laboratory suggests that hormone-mediated increases in neural (or non-chemoreflex) drives to breathe may contribute importantly to the hyperventilation of pregnancy. This review challenges traditional views of ventilatory control, and outlines an alternative hypothesis of the control of breathing during human pregnancy that is currently being tested in our laboratory. Conventional wisdom suggests that pregnancy-induced increases in central respiratory motor output command in combination with progressive thoraco-abdominal distortion may compromise the normal mechanical response of the respiratory system to exercise, increase the perception of exertional breathlessness, and curtail aerobic exercise performance in otherwise healthy pregnant women. The majority of available evidence suggests, however, that neither pregnancy nor advancing gestation are associated with reduced aerobic working capacity or increased breathlessness at any given work rate or ventilation during exhaustive weight-supported exercise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Adult
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise Tolerance
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Volume Measurements
  • Pregnancy / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy / physiology*
  • Pulmonary Diffusing Capacity / physiology
  • Respiratory Mechanics
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena
  • Rest / physiology*


  • Estrogens