A couple of months ago, I was at a baby shower with a handful of other pregnant women. And much to my surprise, almost all of them had a mimosa or two. This wasn’t a one-time thing either – I’d seen them drink at a birthday party a couple of weeks before, too.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant – so why weren’t these girls being a little more responsible? Was that one drink really worth the risk of potentially harming their unborn children?
Unfortunately, the women I've encountered certainly aren’t the only ones to throw caution to the wind.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Up to five percent of Americans are affected with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a congenital syndrome caused by excessive consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, resulting in learning disabilities, congenital deformities, stunted growth and hyperactivity. FAS is on the far end of a broad spectrum of symptoms and identifiable with facial characteristics including hooded eyes, flat cheeks and a smooth philtrum (the indentation under the nose above the lip).
Researchers believe alcohol can have a permanent impact to a fetus at any time, yet the first few weeks of the first trimester – when most women aren’t aware
they’re pregnant – are considered to be the most dangerous. This is because the first stages of pregnancy are an active time for cell division and differentiation.
Alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord and early exposure creates changes in each cell’s epigenome – the set of chemical compounds that regulate gene function in the brain. These changes occur primarily in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. At this stage, the embryo is vulnerable to external influences and any changes can become widespread because the cells are rapidly dividing.
The effects of alcohol on the embryo can cause changes in brain structure, function and behavior. And, unfortunately, these problems don’t just go away. Alcohol’s effects – even in the first few weeks after conception – are permanent.
A Simple Solution Complicated
“Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the leading cause of preventable intellectual instability in our society,” said Dr. Julie Kable, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. “(People believe) the greatest amount of potential harm (comes from) illicit drugs and tobacco,” Dr. Kable continued. “Alcohol is more of a risk than smoking. It’s an anomaly to see a heavy drinker and a healthy baby.”
The obvious solution, then? If you’re contemplating getting pregnant, are sexually active or simply off birth control, stay far, far away from alcohol.
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