Kevin Huang, BSc Pharm Student
Alcohol and Pregnancy
The culture of drinking can be unique. Some may see it as a celebration for their achievements. Others may use it as a coping mechanism for difficult times. Many of us know the effects of alcohol on our minds and body. We also know that drinking during pregnancy is not good. But do you know why healthcare professionals strongly advise against alcohol during pregnancy?
One of the biggest reasons why is because of the risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) with alcohol consumption during pregnancy. FASD is a physical, cognitive, and behavioural disorder which affects 3-5% of children across Canada.1 This disorder is caused by prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) during pregnancy, disrupting the child’s neurological growth and afflicting lifelong impairments in many aspects of their life.
Impacts of Drinking
The effect of alcohol on the fetus has a detrimental impact on its development as outlined below.
Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) can have detrimental effects on the child’s neurological development. Exposure to alcohol disrupts the connections between the neurons (brain cells) and impedes the brain’s ability to communicate with the different neurological regions.4 Furthermore, studies have shown PAE will cause a reduction in brain volume.4,5 The combination of these two factors ultimately results in irreversible damage to their cognitive ability, difficulty in understanding abstract concepts, poor learning capacity, and impairment of memory.3
Another problem with FASD is its impact on the child’s mental health. PAE is associated with many psychiatric conditions, many of which are seen during the early stages of their lives. These include ADHD, depression, anxiety, addictions, and schizophrenia.7,8 Failure to manage these conditions will likely result in a loss of productivity and a decline in their quality of life. Therefore, it’s important for these individuals to seek early intervention when appropriate.
Individuals with FASD will likely struggle in institutional learning. With ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) being one of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders,7,8 the overstimulating environment of traditional classrooms will exacerbate episodes of agitation and irritation. This ultimately disrupts their ability to focus on curricular materials. In addition, their cognitive disability due to neurological damage will make it difficult for them to keep up with their peers. As a result, these students will face challenges with the current educational system and are at high risk for academic failure, unemployment, and poverty.
The Bottom Line
Although neurological damages to the brain cannot be reversed, there are many strategies we can use to assist the FASD community. Understanding that there is no amount of alcohol that is safe during pregnancy can make a big impact.4,5 The severity of the damage solely depends on the timing and amount of alcohol exposed to the child.8 Therefore, it’s vital for men and women to understand the significance of abstaining from alcohol when planning for and during pregnancy. Affected individuals will struggle with health and socioeconomic problems, and inappropriate management may result in negative consequences. Contacting trained professionals will help these individuals begin interventions and avoid these concerns while receiving the support they need to thrive in life.
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- May P, Chambers C, Kalberg W, Zellner J, Feldman H, Akshoomoff N, et al. Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in 4 US communities. JAMA: Journal Of The American Medical Association [serial on the Internet]. (2018, Feb 6);319(5):474-482.
- O’Leary-Moore, S. K., Parnell, S. E., Godin, E. A., & Sulik, K. K. (2011). Magnetic Resonance-Based Imaging in Animal Models of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Alcohol Research & Health, 34(1), 99-105. doi:10.1007/s11065-011-9164-z
- Lebel, C., Rasmussen, C., Wyper, K., Walker, L., Andrew, G., Yager, J., & Beaulieu, C. (2008). Brain Diffusion Abnormalities in Children With Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 32(10), 1732-1740. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2008.00750.x
- Gautam P, Warner TD, Kan EC, Sowell ER. Executive function and cortical thickness in youths prenatally exposed to cocaine, alcohol and tobacco. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2015;16:155-165.
- Riley, E. P., Alejandra Infante, M. and Warren, K. R. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: an overview. Neuropsychol Rev. 2011;21:73-80. doi: 10.1007/s11065-011-9166-x
- Green J. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Understanding the Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Supporting Students. Journal Of School Health. 2007, Mar 1; 77(3): 103-108.
- Davis KM, Gagnier KR, Moore TE, Todorow M. Cognitive aspects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 2012;4(1):81–92.
- Davis-Anderson KL, Wesseling H, Siebert LM, Lunde-Young ER, Naik VD, Steen H, et al. Fetal regional brain protein signature in FASD rat model. Reproductive Toxicology. 2018;76(2018):84-92