Many mothers-to-be are aware of the damage drinking can do to their baby. Because of this, most women take a break from alcohol while pregnant instead of putting their child at risk of developing fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that often results in long-term brain damage and developmental issues. But can alcohol cause damaging effects at the moment of conception?

Researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia have reason to believe it does.

In their new study, they found that women who drink alcohol around the time of their baby’s conception drastically increase the chances of that child developing type 2 diabetes and obesity later on in life.

Led by the School of Biomedical Sciences’ associate professor Karen Moritz, researchers examined the effects of alcohol consumption right around the time egg meets sperm. They found that alcohol consumption both before and after pregnancy could affect the long-term health of the child, especially by predisposing them to diabetes in middle age.

To conduct their study, the researchers examined the effects of alcohol consumption on a laboratory rat model. Dr. Moritz, along with PhD student Emelie Gardebjer, found that the equivalent of drinking five alcoholic drinks around the time of conception affected the development of the rat’s fetus.

“Before the egg implants, before any organs start to develop, alcohol consumption somehow causes changes to the embryo,” Moritz said in a recent press release.

Even more of a concern is that Dr. Moritz and her team found that the effects it observed would have repercussions for years to come. “Anything that affects fetal development can cause long-term programming, which means that offspring can be born with increased risk and susceptibility to disease later in life,” she said. “Monitoring the offspring of the laboratory rat model, we found the risk of becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes in early middle age dramatically increased.”

Moritz also noted that this is a particularly interesting find, as the development of type 2 diabetes is often associated with diet and health choices that occur during life. “The usual risk factors of these two diseases are attributed to poor diet and lack of exercise, but our research showed exposure to alcohol around conception presents a risk similar to following a high-fat diet for a major proportion

of life.”

Though frightening, the evidence could potentially help many women who are considering having a child, or even those who have unplanned pregnancies. Moritz says this is especially important in Australia, where 50 percent of pregnancies are not planned.

“Although most women stop drinking once they discover they are pregnant, a significant proportion are consuming alcohol at the time of conception, before they even know,” she said.

Now, Moritz and her team are turning their attention on how to combat the effects of drinking around unintentional conception so that these health risks will not plague children later in their lives.

“Our future research will be focusing on the possibility of administering preventative interventions,” Moritz said. “One possibility is giving some type of nutrient to the mother, even later in pregnancy, to see if the changes caused by the early alcohol exposure can be prevented, and in turn prevent the possible long-term disease outcomes of offspring.”

Source: Moritz K, Anderson S, Wlodek, M, et al. Maternal alcohol intake around the time of conception causes glucose intolerance and insulin insensitivity in rat offspring, which is exacerbated by a postnatal high-fat diet. The FASEB Journal. 2015.