Fertility Issues, Death in Family Increase Risks for Drinking, Smoking During Pregnancy

Posted on February 26th, 2015
Posted in News

Exposure to certain types of life-altering stress substantially boosts the odds that a woman will drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes while pregnant, a team of American researchers reports.

A significant minority of American women consumes alcohol or engages in other forms of substance use at some point during pregnancy. Unfortunately, these women expose their newborn children to a range of serious potential harms. In a study published in December 2014 in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers from six U.S. institutions explored the impact that exposure to certain highly stressful events/situations has on the odds that a pregnant woman will drink alcohol and/or smoke cigarettes. The researchers concluded that life-altering stress increases the odds of involvement in these activities before and during pregnancy.

Women and Stress

The vast majority of all adults experience daily or near-daily exposure to some sort of stressful situation or event. Within limits, humans are biologically prepared to deal with stress while avoiding long-term, negative health outcomes. However, certain short- or long-term events or situations can push people past their stress tolerance levels, and these events thereby act as meaningful risk factors for altered mental and/or physical health. Women may have higher stress susceptibilities than men. Examples of factors that can make women more likely to develop adverse reactions to stress exposure include reduced socioeconomic standing, the tendency to follow traditional gender roles inside and outside the home and hormonal fluctuations associated with going through monthly menstruation, giving birth and going through menopause.

Specific potential indications of an adverse stress reaction in a woman or man include loss of the ability to concentrate, an increase in food intake, an unstable mood, a “down” or depressed mood, an anxious mood and memory lapses. In addition, highly stressed people have increased chances of consuming too much alcohol, taking up smoking or smoking in increased amounts. Physical and mental health concerns associated with damaging stress include tension headaches, asthma, cardiovascular problems, lowered immune function, impaired sexual function, anxiety disorders, mood disorders and anorexia and other eating disorders.

Drinking, Smoking and Pregnancy

Alcohol, a substance toxic to all humans even in relatively small amounts, is particularly dangerous for developing children during pregnancy. Potential consequences of fetal exposure to the alcohol circulating in a mother’s bloodstream include heightened chances of having a miscarriage, having a child with unusually low birth weight and exposing a child to highly damaging fetal alcohol syndrome or other conditions classified as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Risks associated with smoking cigarettes during pregnancy include having a low birth weight newborn, miscarrying, having a stillborn child and going through labor prematurely.

Which Stresses Increase Drinking and Smoking Risks

In the study published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Medical School, Ferris State University and Truven Health Analytics used information from a project called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort to determine the impact that life-altering stress has on the odds that a pregnant woman will drink or smoke cigarettes. A total of 9,350 women participated in this project. In each of these women, the researchers looked for a history of exposure to specific forms of serious or severe stress before pregnancy, including fertility issues, divorce, the death of a child born at an earlier date, the death of a husband or wife and the death of at least one parent. In addition, they looked at alcohol and cigarette use during two timeframes: the three-month period before each woman got pregnant and the final trimester of pregnancy.

The researchers concluded that exposure to at least one of the major life stressors under consideration leads to a substantial increase in alcohol use during the last trimester of pregnancy. They also concluded that women exposed to the stressors under consideration have a roughly 52 percent higher chance of smoking in the three-month time period before getting pregnant, as well as a roughly 57 percent higher chance of smoking during their last trimester. Compared to their counterparts unaffected by major stress events, women exposed to such events smoke almost 100 more cigarettes in the three-month period of time before pregnancy begins.

Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that women with a known history of exposure to major life stressors should have their alcohol and cigarette use monitored in the months prior to pregnancy, as well as during the various phases of pregnancy.

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