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Danger of drinking alcohol while pregnant has been reinforced

Harold Mandel's picture
Danger of drinking alcohol while pregnant

Drinking alcohol while a woman is pregnant can be hazardous for the well being of the unborn baby. There has been news around for years that drinking while pregnant can harm the fetus. However, due to the lure of drinking alcohol to gain a high during times of stress many women appear to wonder if perhaps some drinking while pregnant is actually dangerous. New research has however reinforced the finding that drinking while pregnant is dangerous.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a description of developmental issues which result from high maternal alcohol consumption, which often results in restriction of fetal growth and long term morbidity for the baby, reports the journal PLOS One. Researchers decided to check out this finding by investigating the effect of alcohol and acetaldehyde on the placenta in the first trimester. This period is essential for normal fetal organogenesis.

Normal invasion and establishment of the placenta during the first trimester are vital for sustaining the viability of the fetus to term. The researchers hypothesized that alcohol and acetaldehyde have negative effects on cytotrophoblast invasion, turnover and placental function. Because taurine is an important amino acid for neuronal and physiological development, its uptake was assayed in cells and placental explants which were exposed to alcohol or acetaldehyde. It was demonstrated by this research that exposure to alcohol and acetaldehyde may contribute to the pathogenesis of FASD by reducing growth of the placenta. Alcohol was also found to reduce the transport of taurine, which is essential for developmental neurogenesis.

This new research has reinforced the danger of drinking alcohol while pregnant, reports The University of Manchester. It has been demonstrated that women who drink alcohol at moderate or heavy levels in the early stages of their pregnancy might cause damage to the growth and function of their placenta. The placenta is the organ which is responsible for supplying everything essential that a developing infant needs to thrive until birth.

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The researchers investigated the effect alcohol and its major toxic breakdown product, acetaldehyde, had on the placenta during the first few weeks of development. This early period is essential for normal development where three primary germ cell layers in the very young infant are seen to develop into internal organs. Placental cell growth was observed to be reduced at moderate and heavy drinking levels. However, alcohol at very low concentrations, equal to half or one standard drink, was not found to have any effect on growth or function.

The researchers also found that alcohol at moderate to heavy levels reduced the transport of a very important amino acid, which is known as taurine, from mother to baby via the placenta. Taurine is essential for brain and physiological development. Acetaldehyde was not found to have any effect on the transportation of taurine, which has suggested alcohol is primarily responsible for this problem. Lowered taurine has been observed to have negative effects on behavior and physical development. Therefore, this might explain why some neurological symptoms are observed in children of alcoholic mothers.

Researcher Sylvia Lui at The University of Manchester who carried out the research, has said, “Alcohol and acetaldehyde are known to be toxic at high levels, but these results clearly show that levels easily achieved in a normal population have specific effects in the placenta." The finding that placental growth is reduced in comparison to placentas not exposed to alcohol and acetaldehyde suggests that in the long-term there could be consequences to how much support the infant receives from the placenta during the remainder of the pregnancy after this exposure.

Dr Clare Tower, who is a consultant obstetrician at Saint Mary’s Hospital part of Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, has noted that although low levels of alcohol did not have a harmful effect, moderate to high levels were found to be damaging. In view of these findings Dr Tower says the safest clinical advice would be for pregnant women to abstain from drinking alcohol. This advice seems best in consideration of confusion dealing with the perception of what alcohol units are, and a lack of accurate self-monitoring of drinking levels.

Professor John Aplin, who is a Professor of Reproductive Biomedicine at the The University of Manchester, says that this research has also suggested that women who are trying to conceive should abstain from drinking alcohol because the damage which is caused by alcohol can happen very early during pregnancy, perhaps even before a woman knows that she is pregnant. Although many pregnancies are not planned, this research raises questions about whether women should consider their alcohol consumption even before they fall pregnant.

Women often ask about whether or not just a little alcohol during pregnancy can be harmful. This research highlights the vital importance for physicians and nurses not to take a casual position on this matter. I am fully in support of the suggestion by these researchers that all pregnant women, and women who are planning to conceive, should be advised to completely abstain from drinking alcohol. The desire for an alcohol high is not a good reason to risk the health of the developing fetus.