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New Link Between Alcohol and Miscarriage Found

Drinking most dangerous to fetus in first trimester, Danish study shows

FRIDAY, Feb. 8 , 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- In what has become a growing collection of evidence showing that drinking and pregnancy don't mix, a new Danish study finds even moderate amounts of alcohol can increase a woman's risk of miscarriage, particularly during the first trimester.

The research, which appears in the current issue of Alcohol and Alcoholism, underscores what doctors have believed for a long time -- that alcohol has toxic effects on the baby, especially at the earliest stages of development.

"It's been fairly well-publicized that there is an association with cigarette smoking and miscarriage, so it doesn't surprise me that the same thing can now be said of alcohol," says high-risk pregnancy expert Dr. Charles Lockwood.

From what is known about how and why miscarriage occurs, alcohol is a likely suspect, says Lockwood, the director of obstetrics and gynecology at Bellevue Medical Center in New York City, who was not part of the study.

"Most pregnancy losses that occur before 10 weeks are due to chromosomal abnormalities, and they, in turn, seem to be due to abnormalities in the cytoplasm of the egg," Lockwood adds. Cytopolasm is the material that cushions the actual egg inside its fragile enclosure.

"Any toxin, anything that can affect [egg] quality, will increase the risk of miscarriage -- and alcohol is one of those toxins," Lockwood says.

Interestingly, while previous studies found links between alcohol use and pregnancy loss in the second trimester, the new research found the opposite: Drinking during the second trimester did not increase the risk of loss, although the first trimester was particularly perilous.

However, Lockwood stresses women should always think twice before they belly up to the bar during pregnancy, since miscarriage is only one of many problems caused by alcohol.

"The risk of having a baby with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is significant in all women who drink regularly during pregnancy, any time during the pregnancy," he says.

FAS is a disorder characterized by retardation, facial abnormalities and central nervous system dysfunction. In 1991, a study in the Journal of The American Medical Association found FAS is the leading cause of mental retardation.

Despite a barrage of studies linking alcohol to pregnancy complications, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported the rate of frequent drinking among pregnant women increased fourfold between 1991 and 1995. Newer studies show more pregnant women are drinking and smoking than ever before.

The Danish study was one of the largest to date, involving almost 25,000 singleton pregnancies between 1989 and 1996.

After analyzing data on each pregnancy -- including the mother's admission of alcohol consumption -- the researchers concluded that five drinks a week seemed to be the point at which the risk of pregnancy loss took a noticeable jump.

Those risks, however, dropped back down to normal during the second and third trimester -- even though the women continued to drink the same amount of alcohol.

The researchers believe alcohol consumption during pregnancy is widely underreported -- with many women experiencing early miscarriages as a result of drinking, sometimes before they even know they are pregnant.

As Lockwood puts it: "The take-home message here is simple: If you are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, reduce your alcohol intake as much as possible."

What To Do

To learn more about the causes of miscarriage and possible treatment options, visit The March of Dimes.

You can also stop by The Baby Center for more information.

SOURCES: Interview with Charles Lockwood, M.D., professor and chairman, obstetrics and gynecology, New York University School of Medicine, and director, obstetrics and gynecology, Bellevue Medical Center, New York City; January/February 2002 Alcohol and Alcoholism
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