Preventing FASD by Dr. Kristina Uban, PhD

Dr. Kristina Uban received her PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, and is currently working in pediatric neuroimaging research on brain development at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She is a leading neuroscientist whose research and public outreach efforts center around the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the developing brain and hormone systems. We are happy to have Kristina as our guest blogger this month because she is so passionate about preventative health research and, importantly, about getting her research out to the masses to really make a difference!

The Key To Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

I started my career by counseling pregnant women and their children who were living in an addiction rehabilitation facility, and I was shocked to learn that prenatal alcohol exposure was more harmful than marijuana, cocaine, and even methamphetamine exposure! Given how prevalent binge drinking and alcoholism are in today’s society, I found this observation very troubling and it launched me into my current career of research and public outreach. I have witnessed that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can result in a very complex pattern of cognitive, behavioral and mental health problems in exposed children, and that this fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is common—occurring in 9 per 1,000 births in North America, and on the rise. Sadly, FASD is one of the most common developmental disorders, but the the reason I am so passionate about getting the word out is that it is the only one that is 100% preventable.  We need to increase education for future parents, health care providers, and our communities if we want to prevent FASD. So, on that note, I’d like to share a few things that I’ve learned along the way and that may come as a surprise to you.

First of all, there is actually NO amount of alcohol consumption that is safe during pregnancy, so please don’t think that a couple drinks, once on a while are safe while pregnant. And second, whether or not prenatal alcohol exposure will result in FASD depends on several key factors—nutrition being a very important one! Nutrition is a very promising area for prevention and intervention for FASD, because increased levels of many essential nutrients are required during pregnancy for healthy fetal development. Drinking alcohol impairs your body’s ability to absorb and utilize key nutrients, such as thiamine, folate, magnesium, zinc, iron, Vitamin A and D—all very important for a healthy mom and healthy baby. What’s worse, these nutritional deficiencies caused by alcohol then intensify the negative effects of prenatal alcohol exposure (so, even if you drink very little and think you are being careful, it is very serious if you have a nutritional deficiency). Thus, it is very important to stay away from alcohol while pregnant and to supplement essential nutrients before and during pregnancy. Interestingly, recent research has shown that paternal (yes, that means you future dads out there) alcohol consumption may also increase susceptibility to FASD, and this effect is also partially due to the nutrition of the father.

Now, to dispel another alcohol-related myth, despite the perception that alcohol consumption reduces stress, alcohol actually turns on our stress system. Thus, maternal alcohol consumption increases the both the level of alcohol in the blood and levels of stress hormones.  High levels of stress hormones in mom are known to be very harmful to her and to baby, and often result in low birth weights (which carries its unique set of health risks), among many other symptoms. Finally, the placenta (which serves as protection for the fetus) contains enzymes that break down excessive levels of alcohol and stress hormones before reaching the fetus. Genetics code for these enzymes, which means some placentas are better than others at reducing alcohol and stress hormone levels—and it’s a genetic luck of the draw whether your baby will be protected by your placenta if you drink alcohol while pregnant. I’m sure you know that prenatal exposure to illegal drugs is also associated with harm to the fetus, however, you may not know that alcohol is unique in that it readily crosses the placental barrier and can directly harm the developing fetal systems, unlike illegal drugs. In summary, I’ve learned that FASD results from a mixture of harmful effects due to drinking alcohol, having nutritional deficiencies, high stress hormone levels, and genetic vulnerability. So my take-home message is: stay away from alcohol while pregnant, improve your (and your partner’s) nutrition before and during pregnancy, and try to keep stress at bay to improve your chances for a healthy, happy baby.

Our guest Dr. Kristina Uban contributed this post for myWholeLife’s Preventative Health Theme. Each month, myWholeLife invites guests who are aligned with our philosophy on holistic nutrition to write content for our blog and other online channels.  Register today to join myWholeLife’s mailing list, and be the first to learn about new products, the latest research, and app releases.