A new study out of Australia draws a connection between prenatal alcohol exposure and adverse health outcomes for offspring.
Trying to conceive often means skipping happy hour or your daily dose of wine or beer. But considering that up to half of all pregnancies are unplanned, many women continue to imbibe around the time of conception without even knowing they're putting their babies at risk. Turns out, sipping an adult beverage even before conceiving puts future offspring at an increased chance of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life, according to a new study from the University of Queensland in Australia.
Researchers used a laboratory rat model and found that the long-term effects of prenatal alcohol consumption on future metabolic dysregulation between four days prior to conception and day four of gestation last well into the sixth month of life for adult animals—the equivalent of early middle age in humans. This means that the detrimental consequences of alcohol use on glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity take place even before the egg has implanted itself and organs begin to develop in the embryo. The findings were recently published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and are part of the growing field of epigenetics research, which involves the expression of certain physiological characteristics as a result of turning on and off specific genes in the human DNA sequence.
"There is now a lot of evidence that events occurring very early in pregnancy can influence lifelong health," study author Karen Moritz, Ph.D., told Fit Pregnancy. "It is well known that alcohol can have effects on the fetuses during development; however, many women drink but then stop as soon as they are aware they are pregnant. We wondered if there may already be some effects of the alcohol on very early embryonic development."
As far as preventative interventions, the scientists are considering whether some sort of substance could be administered to mothers-to-be in an effort to mitigate the effects of fetal alcohol exposure. Moritz says that women should be consuming sufficient amounts of iron and folate, and that another essential nutrient, choline, may be equally critical when it comes to prenatal health. Although the study didn't determine whether the response found in rats would carry over to humans, it did exhibit beneficial effects of a diet supplemented with choline, which is high in foods like meat and eggs.
Still, the best prevention is abstaining if you want to avoid any potential negative ramifications of alcohol consumption. "The safest option is to stop drinking alcohol if you are planning a pregnancy. Ideally, this would occur if couples stop using birth control and there is a risk pregnancy may occur," says Moritz, while cautioning that she is not a medically qualified doctor and that women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should talk with their doctors or obstetricians about alcohol use.
The Australian scientists are planning to continue this line of research and are actually looking at whether drinking during conception can lead to other outcomes, such as high blood pressure pr impaired kidney and heart function. Pending those results, this most recent study is probably enough to convince women that cocktails and conception don't mix.