Alcohol Abuse During Pregnancy: Risks, Signs & Detox

How Does Alcohol Affect a Pregnant Mother?

Pregnant women who drink run the risk of harming themselves and their unborn children as well. Drinking while pregnant is risky for the mother too. All pregnant women are advised against drinking by doctors, and those with liver issues run a higher risk.

Women who drink while pregnant may experience:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Early labor.
  • Anemic disorders.
  • Additionally, a pregnant woman’s immune system is changed to accommodate the fetus’ presence. Although the majority of women have healthy pregnancies, pregnant women are more prone to certain infections and illnesses due to changes in their immune systems. Regular alcohol consumption lowers immunity as well, which increases the risk of various health problems for pregnant drinkers. All of these problems add stress to the pregnancy and raise the possibility of complications during labor and delivery.

    Many pregnant women who drink may be using alcohol to treat underlying problems. Alcohol is sometimes used by pregnant women who are depressed or anxious to treat the symptoms of their mental health disorder.

    Alcoholism has detrimental, dangerous effects on a person’s life whether they are pregnant or not. The potential long-term health effects of alcoholism include heart disease, various cancers, liver damage, and nerve damage, to name a few. Pregnancy increases the likelihood of experiencing these effects and their potential severity.

    In addition to the numerous health risks of drinking while pregnant, alcoholism has a negative impact on almost every aspect of life. Financial hardships, work-related difficulties, and relationship issues can all affect people; pregnancy only makes things worse.

    Unfortunately, many women do not realize they are pregnant during the first trimester, and if they drink alcohol, they may unintentionally harm the skeleton and organs of their unborn child.

    The first trimester (the first twelve weeks of pregnancy), which lasts the longest, is when structural development occurs most frequently. Along with the internal organ systems (such as the endocrine system, respiratory tract, digestive tract, and nervous system), the musculoskeletal system develops during the first trimester. Organogenesis is the term for the stage of development when organs form. First trimester prenatal alcohol exposure can harm certain cell populations that are important for organ development. Facial abnormalities, a small skull circumference, skeletal and muscle issues, and issues with internal organs are some of the most prevalent physical flaws.

    Alcohol consumption during the first trimester causes harm to more than just skeletal and organ systems. Additionally, there is brain damage, which results in cognitive and behavioral issues.

    Alcohol use while pregnant (during all three trimesters) can have a variety of negative effects on the fetus, including growth retardation, musculoskeletal damage, and brain damage. Instances of episodic binge drinking (once in a while) may result in more targeted harm to the brain and other organs. Whether an organ is going through a major developmental stage or a growth spurt when alcohol is consumed will determine whether that organ suffers damage (including the brain). Any time during pregnancy that a woman is exposed to alcohol, the fetal brain may suffer harm.

    module 05 figure 07Figure 5.7 The stages of development of the brain and spinal cord over the 3 trimesters are shown. Alcohol affects brain development during all 3 trimesters.

    Women who drink at such excessive levels one or more times during the second or third trimester have been found across numerous studies to be more likely to bear offspring with language delays. There is evidence that excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy alters babies’ expression of genes that regulate circadian rhythms and stress reactions. Excessive drinking in the first trimester increases the likelihood of offspring physical deformities, like a very thin upper lip (“thin vermillion border”), no ridges of flesh between the nose and upper lip (“smooth philtrum”), an abnormally small head (microcephaly), and reduced birth weight.

    It is believed that excessive drinking during pregnancy increases the risk of having children who have physical, intellectual, or behavioral issues because alcohol may cause cell damage. Alcohol’s capacity to destroy and harm cells can significantly impede the development of babies’ nervous systems, increasing the likelihood of mild to severe brain damage as well as physical deformity.

    Intriguingly, the above birth defects appeared, in one study of nearly 1,000 moms and their babies, to be more likely among expecting moms who drank during the latter half of the first trimester, as opposed to the first 6 weeks following conception. The researchers (led by University of California, San Diego’s Haruna Sawada Feldman) attributed the lower likelihood of alcohol interfering with development during this initial 6 weeks of pregnancy to the fact that, during this time, a fertilized egg is still morphing into an embryo and implanting in the uterine wall and the placenta isn’t yet fully functional—so any ethanol in a mother’s bloodstream would presumably be less likely to transfer to the embryo.

    It’s clear from decades of research that binge drinking—that is, four or more servings of alcohol at a time, five or more times per month—significantly increases a woman’s risk of bearing a child with any of several fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (or FASDs). FASDs refer to a broad range of conditions seen in infants and children who were exposed to alcohol in the womb. They encompass physical abnormalities and disabilities, emotional and behavioral problems, and cognitive and intellectual deficits.

    To get to fetal cells in the first place, alcohol must first move through a pregnant woman’s digestive system, where the alcohol is absorbed via epithelial cells in the stomach and small intestine, into the bloodstream. Mom feels alcohol’s effects as the substance crosses her blood-brain barrier and binds to receptors for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate, and reduces firing between neurons in her brain. The fetus is subjected to alcohol’s effects thanks to the ease with which the substance ease diffuse across the placenta and into the fetal blood supply.

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