Even a cup of palm wine can affect your baby’s brain!

Physicians and researchers have been warning about the hazards of alcohol use during pregnancy for decades. In this report by SADE OGUNTOLA, experts again say that there is no quantity or type of alcohol considered safe in pregnancy.

Drinking alcohol in moderation is more harmful than previously thought and there’s no “safe” level of alcohol consumption. What is more, even a drop of alcohol in pregnancy is not safe either.

Studies prove that drinking alcohol — beer, wine and liquor while pregnant could affect the baby because alcohol rapidly reaches the baby through your blood-stream and across the placenta.

Even small levels of exposure to alcohol in the womb are dangerous to the baby’s brain development. Experts’ assessment of beer and palm wine in pregnancy in Nigeria found that it interferes with the development of the brain of an unborn baby.

The researchers had administrated various doses of beer and palm wine from 7th through 13th day of pregnancy the most critical period of gestation, to Wistar rats to determine if these alcoholic drinks will be toxic to an unborn child’s brain development.

The percentage of alcohol in beer was experimentally found to be 6.1%. The estimated alcohol content in five days fermented palm wine was 4.5%.

Beer and palm wine which is alcoholic beverages play an important indispensable role in local ceremonies such as rituals, traditional marriages and other social life in Nigeria. They are consumed by both men and women including pregnant women.

Traditionally palm wine is given to women after childbirth to help stimulate the production of milk and to young women in the fattening rooms.

At 20th day of pregnancy, the brains of the babies of the Wistar rats were examined under the microscope. They found a marked distortion and disappearance of the intermediate zone of the developing cerebral cortex, the outermost layer that surrounds the brain.

The cerebral cortex is directly responsible for brain functions such as perception, memory, thoughts, mental ability and intellect.

Also, the development and functions of the cerebrum were adversely affected. The damage was more severe in rats whose mothers received 8ml of beer and 8ml of 5days fermented palm wine. The cerebrum is the front part of the brain that is involved with thought, decision, emotion, and character.

This 2008 study in The Internet Journal of Health, which involved Mokutima A. Eluwa, C Njoku, Theresa B. Ekanem, Amabe O. Akpantah at the University of Calabar, stated “beer had the most detrimental effect on the cerebral cortex than palm wine.”

The researchers, however, linked the damage both to the brain development and its function to the vulnerability of a baby’s brain, during the critical period of pregnancy, to alcohol.

The infant is not only born with a brain smaller in size but the alcohol reduces the number of brain cells, as well as alters their distribution. This results in a mental deficiency of varying degrees, from milder behavioural problems to obvious mental handicap.

They declared that “the public should be enlightened regarding dangers of alcoholic beverages used during pregnancy and the possible adverse outcome associated with prenatal alcohol exposure.

“This will go a long way to ensuring that children are guarded against fetal alcoholic syndrome (FAS) and mental retardation.”

Dr Chris Aimakhu, consultant obstetrics and gynecologist, University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, stated the doctor’s had always warned pregnant women against alcohol use, be it in the form of beer, palm wine, or herbal concoctions.

According to him, “There is no safe limit for alcohol use, not in pregnancy. We always say do not take alcohol at all. It can cross through the placenta to the unborn baby. They can have what is called fetal alcoholic syndrome where the baby is born behaving like a drunk, sleeping and yawning, and always looking intoxicated.”

Dr Aimakhu said like alcohol use, pregnant women should also not smoke cigarette because both are noxious agents that can also cause early miscarriages.

Surprisingly, even many nurses and midwives, the first group of health workers pregnant women, see when they go for antenatal care underestimate the dangers of alcohol use in pregnancy. It appeared in June 11, 2019 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The recent survey of midwives and nurses who provide antenatal care by Wayne State University showed that 44 per cent think one drink per occasion is acceptable while pregnant, and 38 per cent think it is safe to drink alcohol during at least one trimester of pregnancy.

Although alcohol use during pregnancy can affect not only the health of the baby but can also cause miscarriage, preterm birth and low birth weight, they fail to screen actively for alcohol use and miss opportunities for intervention.

Now, alcohol consumption among different ethnic groups in Nigeria has a long history, especially among those groups where it was not forbidden by religion.

For instance, alcohol consumption is widespread in Southern Nigeria where it is used in social and religious occasions. It is also used as an aphrodisiac, to treat cold, and for oral hygiene.

In spite of this, there is no concerted effort in the Nigerian health system to discourage pregnant women from drinking alcohol, and protect the unborn child.

A cross-sectional study of 380 pregnant women indicates a prevalence of alcohol consumption of 22.6% among women accessing antenatal care at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu, in 2016.  It was in the Journal of Clinical Diagnosis and Research.

The study, which was to determine the prevalence and determinants of alcohol consumption during pregnancy in South-Eastern Nigeria, had quantified and considered any alcohol is taken as part of native herbal medication in pregnancy also as alcohol use in pregnancy.

The most common brand of alcoholic beverage consumed was stout beer (62.8%) and lager beer (55.8%). Other brands of alcoholic beverages consumed included: red wine (37.2%), palm wine (32.6%), refined gin/spirit (9.3%), and local gin (4.7%). Only 135 of these women were aware that alcohol is harmful to their unborn baby.

The study, however, said women aged 30 or less, with their first pregnancy, less than tertiary education, pre-pregnancy alcohol consumption and lacked awareness of the harmful effect of alcohol on unborn baby had a higher likelihood of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Previously, a study at the antenatal clinic of the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Port Harcourt in 2015 also indicated that the level of alcohol consumption among attending pregnant women is high.

The study, published in Nigerian Journal of Clinical Practice, said 59.29% of them had taken alcohol during the index pregnancy. This is much higher than the proportion recorded in several developed countries.

They said it was perhaps fuelled by societal tolerance and unlimited access to the free alcoholic beverages offered during social and religious functions.

Indeed, rationalising that alcohol use by anybody or during pregnancy is sufficiently low or infrequent to be safe is wrong. A global study that analyzed information from millions of people in nearly 200 countries, found that alcohol is tied to nearly 3 million deaths globally each year, with about 1 in 10 deaths linked to alcohol use among people ages 15 to 49.

What’s more, the journal The Lancet stated that any protective health effects of alcohol were offset by the drink’s risk, including strong links between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer and injuries such as those resulting from car accidents.

Worldwide, drinking alcohol was the seventh-leading risk factor for early death in 2016, accounting for about 2 per cent of deaths in women and 7 per cent of deaths in men. For people ages, 15 to 49, alcohol consumption was tied to 4 per cent of deaths for women and 12 per cent for men in 2016.

The study found that moderate drinking was, in fact, protective against ischemic heart disease. But this benefit was outweighed by the health risks of alcohol.

Specifically, for people who consume one drink a day, the risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related health problems increase by 0.5 per cent over one year, compared with someone who doesn’t drink.