Pregnant in a Bubble

by Stacey

The pressure on pregnant women to protect a growing is fetus is mounting, according to this story in the LA Times. Pregnant women should not only avoid alcohol, illegal drugs, and smoking, but pesticides on fruits and vegetables, pollution in the air, life stress, and even the flu.

In other words, if you’re pregnant you should wrap yourself in organic cotton, carry a bushel of organic produce wherever you go, breathe only filtered oxygen, and exist for nine months in a healthy, blissful meditative state.

What women eat, touch and breathe during pregnancy now appears to be more important to their babies’ health than anyone ever imagined. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that fetuses are surprisingly susceptible to outside influences, such as food, environmental chemicals and pollutants, infections, even stress. Under this theory — called fetal programming — babies are born not just with traits dictated by their parents’ genes, such as brown eyes and olive skin. They may be born with a tendency to develop asthma, diabetes or other illnesses based on what their mothers ate and were exposed to during pregnancy.

Right there I’m beginning to suspect this article is going to scare the bejeezus out of people. And if you’re not scared, you can at least feel mighty guilty that somehow you are responsible if your child is less than perfect.

For example, the article makes an interesting point: there seems to be a link between a pregnant woman’s diet and childhood obesity. “[R]esearch has shown that pregnant women with diets high in fat and sugar give birth to children who are more likely to become obese, perhaps because their fat cells are “programmed” in utero for later obesity.” But the writer can’t leave well enough alone, so she adds: “In short, the daily experiences of a pregnant woman may be far from benign.”

Sigh.

The article says that scientists who study adult conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, schizophrenia and infertility are now becoming interested in fetal programming. By understanding the origins of susceptibility, they hope to understand how such diseases might be prevented. “People are realizing that maybe they’ve been looking at the wrong time frame for the role of environment and disease,” says [Jerry Heindel, a biochemist and scientific program administrator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences], who developed a program at the institute to study the fetal basis for disease.

Contamination of fish with very high concentrations of methylmercury from industrial sources has caused clusters of severe birth defects in several places around the world. But more recent research, including three large epidemiological studies, suggests that even methylmercury concentrations commonly found in the United States can cause subtle changes in the fetus, such as lower IQ and decreased cognitive performance in childhood, [Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City] says.

I don’t doubt that methylmercury could be problematic. But I do wonder, how do they know what the baby’s IQ would have been if the mother had not eaten the contaminated fish? And as for decreased cognitive performance in childhood, are the kids mentally disabled? Or are they just acting like my son who sometimes mumbles unintelligibly to himself?

Other studies have linked low levels of the vitamin folate and increased levels of the amino acid homocysteine with an increased risk of schizophrenia. In a study published in January in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that high homocysteine levels in the third trimester doubled schizophrenia risk in the offspring, perhaps by altering brain structure or function or through subtle damage to the placenta to reduce oxygen delivery to the fetus.

I don’t even know what homocysteine is. I don’t know how to get it and I certainly wouldn’t know how to get rid of it if there’s too much of it at the end of my pregnancy.

And increasingly, scientists fear that fetuses and young children may be harmed by pesticides and pollutants that, at the same level, cause no measurable harm in adults. For example, some common pesticides are thought to be so-called endocrine disrupters, chemicals that change hormone function in utero and can affect reproductive organ development and function later in life.

Okay, eat organic food whenever you can. I can get behind that. But air pollution? Not sure what you can do about that besides move if you live in a city with a lot of smog. Or try not to breathe too much.

A study in the March issue of Human Reproduction found that women who ate more than seven servings a week of beef during pregnancy had sons who were more likely to have poor sperm quality as adults — possibly due to the hormones fed to cattle.

More than seven servings of red meat in one week sounds like a lot. But then how much is safe? Three? Two? None?

And then in case you weren’t already feeling utterly in despair…

Some aspects of fetal programming seem almost beyond anyone’s control. Infections from particular viruses, bacteria or parasites are known to cause birth defects. But studies even suggest that getting the flu while pregnant might be harmful (it’s linked in several studies to a higher risk of schizophrenia in offspring). And a pregnant woman’s emotional trauma from such events as job loss, divorce or the death of a loved one has been shown in several studies to increase the risk of birth defects and autism.

Advising pregnant women is difficult, the article laments. Landrigan advises people to think about which chemicals to use and store in their homes and whether to buy organic foods and nontoxic products. “This is all about empowering people with information,” he says. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

That’s not to say that Heindel and other fetal-programming experts are suggesting pregnant women take every possible precaution for fear of dooming their children. Such research is in its infancy, and many questions and controversies remain, Heindel says. And he adds: Diseases are caused by a combination of genes and environment or by many factors that collude.

No, no, of course we don’t want women to freak out if we tell them that maybe their unborn child will develop schizophrenia if they stand at the bus stop too long every morning or eat non-organic saltines instead of whole grain wheat toast every day to combat nausea. We’ll just write a big, splashy article about it in the newspaper.

Look, I’m not against being cautious while pregnant. I think most of us know that prescription drugs could pose a risk to a developing fetus and for that reason pregnant women generally try to avoid medications. Most of us don’t drink at all or severely cut back our alcohol intake while pregnant and we don’t do things like ride unicycles or race cars while carrying a fetus.

But in this new world of fetal risk research where everything from eating fish to catching a cold could potentially harm a growing baby, the advice to pregnant women seems to be long on caution and short on facts.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Pregnant in a Bubble

  1. sweetslugabed

    And to make things even more confusing, isn’t there now a new recommendation that the benefits of eating fish to the fetus’s developing brain outweigh the risks of mercury poisoning, so now pregnant women are once again supposed to eat a lot of fish? I pretty much avoided it when I was pregnant with Soli, so once the new recommendation came out I tried to make up for the lost IQ points by eating extra fish while breastfeeding her. But maybe the fish oil was only adding the IQ points back that the mercury was taking away…. On the one hand, it seems like if pregnant women really had to live their lives in a bubble, there wouldn’t be so many relatively healthy people walking arond. On the other hand, there are tragic cases of babies being damaged or dying because of something a mother did or didn’t do, whether it was something she had control over or not. I don’t know where to go with all this advice either.

  2. I agree, the advice on fish is probably the most confusing in all of this. Mostly I just bristle at a lead health story in a newspaper that is based mostly on findings that are speculative. If you look closely at the wording, the links are most often made with words like “might” and “could.” I think it breeds a lot of fear.

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