Alcohol consumption during pregnancy has long been listed as a no-no. Recent research, however, has questioned this notion, wondering if light drinking during the first trimester is really as bad as we think. According to the latest study on the matter, the answer is yes; drinking at any point throughout pregnancy has serious consequences.

Published in The Lancet, the study finds 428 different diseases that co-occur in babies with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. FASD encompasses a broad range of disabilities that can occur in infants as a result of exposure to alcohol in utero. And researchers believe their study is the most comprehensive of its kind to date.

"We've systematically identified numerous disease conditions co-occurring with FASD, which underscores the fact that it isn’t safe to drink any amount or type of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy, despite the conflicting messages the public may hear," said lead study author Dr. Lana Popova, senior scientist in social and epidemiological research at CAMH, in a press release. "Alcohol can affect any organ or system in the developing fetus."

FASD symptoms and severity of disability can vary depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, when it was consumed, and other variables in the mother's life, such as nutrition and stress. There may also be genetic factors at play, including the body's ability to break down alcohol, both in the mother and fetus.

Canadian surveys suggest that between six and 14 percent of women drink at some point during their pregnancy.

FASD Frequency

The disease conditions listed in The Lancet review affected almost every system of the body, including the circulatory, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiac, digestion, and nervous systems. Some of the disorders are known to be caused by alcohol exposure — like cognitive and developmental problems — but for some, the association with FASD didn’t necessarily represent a cause-and-effect relationship.

Regardless of this, many of the conditions occur most often among those with FASD compared to the general population. And after analyzing studies representing individuals with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the most severe form of FASD, the researchers were able to establish the frequency with which 183 certain disease conditions occurred.

Turns out, more than 90 percent of those suffering from FAS also had co-occurring problems with conduct; around 80 percent had communication disorders relating to issues expressing or understanding language; 70 percent had cognitive or developmental disorders; and a little more than half had problems with hyperactivity and attention.

Most of the analyzed studies were conducted in the U.S., prompting the team to compare these numbers to the frequency of disorders in the general U.S. population. The results were clear — among people with FAS, hearing loss was estimated to be up to 129 percent more common than the general population, while blindness and vision problems were 31 and 71 times higher, respectively.

"Some of these other co-occurring problems may lead people to seek professional help," Dr. Popova said. "The issue is that the underlying cause of the problem, alcohol exposure before birth, may be overlooked by the clinician and not addressed."

A Preventable Problem

Improved screening and diagnosis of FASD is a must if these numbers are to be brought down. Earlier access to resources or programs dealing with FASD could prevent secondary outcomes related to the condition, such as relationship, schooling, employment, or mental health problems.

"We can prevent these issues at many stages," Dr. Popova said. "Eliminating alcohol consumption during pregnancy or reducing it among alcohol-dependent women is extremely important. Newborns should be screened for prenatal alcohol exposure, especially among populations at high risk. And alerting clinicians to these co-occurring conditions should trigger questions about prenatal alcohol exposure."

Dr. Popova explained that it is important for the public to receive a clear, consistent message — do not drink alcohol during any point of your pregnancy if you want a healthy child.

Source: Popova S, Lange S, Shield K, Mihic A, Chudley A, Mukherjee R, et al. Comorbidity of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet. 2016.