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Health & Fitness

How men’s alcohol use can affect pregnancy

Many people view alcohol as a harmless drink that can be consumed for leisure
Many people view alcohol as a harmless drink that can be consumed for leisure, or when bonding with friends during free time. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Many people view alcohol as a harmless drink that can be consumed for leisure, or when bonding with friends during free time.

"I mostly drink over the weekends and in the evenings when stressed out. I usually don't worry about it as I just take a few glasses here and there. And I'm not an alcoholic or something," says 30-year-old Brian who is a banker in Nairobi.

His lifestyle represents the relationship that a majority of Kenyans have with alcohol.

But unknown to many people, taking alcohol - even in moderation – in certain phases of life - can lead to adverse health consequences.

This is especially true for young men in their reproductive age that would like to start families and have healthy children.

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A new study published in the Journal of Preventive Cardiology has found that parents who consume alcohol before conception enhance the risk of heart disease in their offspring.

Findings of the research showed babies had a 44 percent increased chance of developing heart defects if their fathers drank alcohol three months before pregnancy or during the first trimester.

Children of mothers taking alcohol within the same period had a 16 percent risk of suffering from the condition.

As such, the researchers recommend that aspiring parents – both mother and father - should avoid drinking alcohol prior to conception to protect their offspring against congenital heart defects.

Binge drinking (five or more drinks per sitting) among men and women was linked to a 52 percent and 16 percent higher likelihood of these birth defects respectively.

“ Binge drinking by would-be parents is a high risk and dangerous behaviour. Aside from increasing the chance of their baby being born with a heart defect, it can also greatly damage their own health,” said Dr Jiabi Qin, lead author of the study from the Xiangya School of Public Health at the Central South University based in Changsha, China.

He said based on the results of the study, when couples are trying for a baby, men should not consume alcohol for at least six months before fertilisation. “Women on the other hand, should stop alcohol one year before and avoid it while pregnant.”

Congenital heart diseases are the most common birth defects affecting newborns globally. These conditions can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease later in life, even after surgical treatment.

They are also the main cause of perinatal deaths. These comprise infants that are born dead, as well as babies born alive who die within the first seven days after delivery.

Past studies that have investigated the link between alcohol and congenital heart disease, focused solely on prospective mothers. And the results yielded were inconclusive.

This new research was the first meta-analysis study (review of data from numerous research papers) to examine the role of paternal alcohol drinking.

The researchers compiled the best data published between 1991 and 2019, which amounted to 55 studies including 41,747 babies with congenital heart disease and 297,587 children without the condition.

“We observed a gradually rising risk of congenital heart diseases as parental alcohol consumption increased. The relationship was not statistically significant at the lower quantities,” stated Dr Qin.

Regarding specific defects, the study found that maternal drinking was linked to a 20 percent greater risk of a type of defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot, which refers to a combination of four abnormalities in the heart's structure.

“The underlying mechanisms connecting parental alcohol and congenital heart diseases are uncertain and warrant further research. Nevertheless, the study does indicate that men and women planning a family should give up alcohol.'’

Aside from the heart defects, alcohol use in men before conception has also been linked to a condition known as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum disorder (FASD).

This refers to children born with mental retardation, developmental problems and abnormal facial features.

Previously, people assumed that the condition only affected children whose mothers downed large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.

But a 2016 research published in the American Journal of Stem Cells proved otherwise and suggested that both parents have a role to play in the prevention of the disease. Recent research is also pointing to a link between alcohol and poor sperm development.

A myriad of studies are showing biological fathers who drink alcohol may have a significant role in causing health problems in their children due to low quality sperms caused by alcohol consumption before conception.

They include altered neurological, behavioural and biochemical outcomes in subsequent generations.

This may result in childhood brain damage, learning disability, poor behaviour and even criminality.

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