Health & Fitness

Sorry, no safe alcohol level in pregnancy

PREGNANCY

Alcohol during pregnancy. Expectant woman holding a glass of wine. PHOTO | COURTESY

Summary

  • Those who take alcohol are often concerned about the impact that drinking can have on the unborn child.
  • On this matter, there are varied opinions. Some think drinking in moderation is okay while others advocate for avoiding it during this period.
  • A new study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology sheds more light.
  • The study found that there is no safe level for alcohol consumption in pregnancy.

During pregnancy, women usually endeavour to do everything possible to protect the unborn child from harm.

Those who take alcohol are often concerned about the impact that drinking can have on the unborn child.

On this matter, there are varied opinions. Some think drinking in moderation is okay while others advocate for avoiding it during this period.

A new study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology sheds more light.

The study found that there is no safe level for alcohol consumption in pregnancy.

The findings of the research, which was conducted by the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre (VUMC) in the United States, showed that drinking alcohol — irrespective of the amount — increases the risk of miscarriage in expectant mothers.

Miscarriages happen when an unborn child dies before the twentieth week of pregnancy. For a majority of affected mothers, miscarriages usually occur during the first three months of pregnancy.

During the study, the researchers recruited women that were planning for a pregnancy and those who were already expectant (in the early stages).

These women were interviewed in the first trimester of their pregnancy about their alcohol use during a four-month window.

Through these mothers, the researchers sought to examine how the timing, amount and type of alcohol use relate to miscarriage risk before the twentieth week of pregnancy.

The results of the study showed that each week a woman consumes alcohol during the first five to 10 weeks of pregnancy is associated with an eight per cent increased risk of miscarriage.

It further revealed that the impact of alcohol use among expectant women rises through the ninth week of pregnancy.

This risk grows regardless of whether a woman reported having less than one drink or more than four each week.

The miscarriage risk caused by drinking was also found to be independent of the type of alcohol consumed and whether the woman had episodes of binge drinking.

Generally, most women tend to change their alcohol consumption patterns as soon as they get pregnant.

Some usually minimise the quantity or strength of alcoholic drinks consumed, even as others choose to refrain altogether.

Based on the findings of this new study, health experts note that it is best to avoid drinking during pregnancy to avert the adverse effects.

For best results, they recommend a cessation in alcohol use before conception or as couples plan to have babies.

This is because many women usually discover that they are pregnant once they miss their periods or after undergoing a pregnancy test. This may happen days or weeks after conception.

The affected women could thus be consuming alcohol while being oblivious of the fact that they already have a baby growing in their womb that can be adversely affected by the drinks.

Indeed, half of the 5,353 women included in the study reported that they used alcohol around the time that they conceived and during the first weeks of pregnancy.

Although 41 per cent of women who changed their alcohol use patterns did so within three days of a positive pregnancy test, those who stopped consumption near their missed period date had a 37 per cent greater risk of miscarriage compared to women who did not use alcohol.

ALARMING FINDINGS

"Abstaining from alcohol around conception or during pregnancy has long been advised for many reasons. Nonetheless, modest levels of consumption are often seen as likely to be safe. For this reason, our findings are alarming. Levels of alcohol use that women or some care providers may believe to be responsible are harmful. As such, no amount can be suggested as safe regarding pregnancy loss," said Dr Katherine Hartmann, the vice president for Research Integration at VUMC and principal investigator for the study.

Whereas most women successfully carry their pregnancies to term, about 10 to 20 per cent usually suffer from miscarriages.

For these mothers, feelings of immense grief and emotional turmoil are common. and can take a toll on those affected.

INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES

Biologically, little is known about how alcohol causes harm during early pregnancy. However, it is believed that alcohol may increase miscarriage risk by interfering with body hormone patterns and the proper implantation of the embryo to the womb. It may also cause undue stress to the growing baby, leading to pregnancy failures.

Health experts say alcohol in the mother's blood usually passes to the baby through the umbilical cord.

Aside from miscarriages, taking alcohol during pregnancy can also lead to stillbirths and a range of lifelong physical, behavioural and intellectual disabilities. These conditions are known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).