(Trigger Warning: This article contains information about miscarriages, which may be upsetting for some readers.)
By Mili Jayadeep
A miscarriage is the loss of a foetus within 23 weeks of pregnancy. It is estimated that 1 in 8 known pregnancies will result in miscarriage, this equates to 250,000 miscarriages annually in the UK. Women having miscarriages can subsequently have devastating emotional consequences such as grief, anxiety and depression.
There are several factors that increase the chances of a miscarriage including the mother’s age, obesity, smoking, caffeine, drugs and alcohol.
A new study issued in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology investigated the effects of alcohol use during the early weeks of pregnancy and its role in increasing miscarriage risk on 5353 women.
Vanderbilt University Medical Centre (VUMC) research reveals that alcohol can increase miscarriage risk by 8% for each week of alcohol consumption during the beginning 5-10 weeks of pregnancy. The findings also showed that miscarriage risk increased regardless of the type or number of drinks.
The NHS discourages drinking during pregnancy as it can increase the risks to the baby including the increased risk of miscarriage, early births and having a lower birthweight. Drinking excessively in pregnancy can also result in foetal alcohol syndrome, which can interfere with the developmental processes of the foetus.
Despite most women following advice to stop drinking during pregnancy, there is a surprising number who either continue to drink or have the occasional drink, due to perceived low chance of risk. According to other studies conducted in 2017 in the UK, 41% of women consumed alcohol while pregnant. The VUMC study recorded 50% of the 5353 women drank prior to and/or during the start of pregnancy.
The vice president for the VUMC study, Katherine Hartmann says:
“Abstaining from alcohol around conception or during pregnancy has long been advised for many reasons, including preventing fetal alcohol syndrome. Nonetheless, modest levels of consumption are often seen as likely to be safe,”
Hartmann, continued, expressing that the results of the study suggest otherwise:
“For this reason, our findings are alarming. Levels of use that women, and some care providers, may believe are responsible are harmful, and no amount can be suggested as safe regarding pregnancy loss.”
The scientific explanation for this could be attributed to the hormonal changes induced by alcohol consumption, which can consequently negatively affect the complex biological pathways occurring during conception and pregnancy. This suggests that women are at increased risk for miscarriage due to alcohol consumption even before the determination of a pregnancy as well as during. The author of the study, Alex Sundermann, says:
“Combining the facts that the cohort is large, comes from diverse communities, captures data early in pregnancy and applies more advanced analytic techniques than prior studies, we’re confident we’ve raised important concerns,”
Alcohol intake with each week of pregnancy cumulatively escalates the risk of miscarriage, even at low quantities of intake. The study highlights that there is no safe recommendation for alcohol consumption for pregnant women or those planning pregnancies.