I can’t say I had ever thought about it before, but I suppose I should have. Having managed to come through my teenage and adult years unscarred by designer drugs and alcohol, I know I am fortunate. I have read about babies being born addicted to narcotics, methamphetamines, cocaine, alcohol etc.
Some studies have indicated that addicted babies have an increased risk for breathing abnormalities and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Many studies of opioid-exposed children up to school age show few differences from nonexposed children of a similarly disadvantaged environment. According to a study conducted by the Society for Maternal-Feral Medicine, children who were exposed to cocaine in utero are 2.4 times more likely to have language problems than children not exposed to cocaine. The outcome for babies with prenatal alcohol exposure depends on the extent of the damage to the fetus born with FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME (FAS).
To be perfectly honest I had not given the subject much thought until I came across an article written By Chris Kressler: Health Begins in the Womb – and even before.
Chris has a wonderful blog which I subscribe to, and in this particular one he tells us that recent research suggests (another) powerful influence on lifelong health: your mother’s nutritional status during (and even before) her pregnancy. In fact, some researchers now believe the 9 months of pregnancy are the most consequential period of our lives, permanently influencing the wiring of the brain and the function of organs like the heart, liver and pancreas. They also suggest that the conditions we encounter in utero shape everything from our susceptibility to disease, to our appetite and metabolism, to our intelligence and temperament.
I was born not long after World War Two had demolished quite a substantial part of England. My Mother was (looking at her wedding photograph) half starved – today we would probably say anorexic. War rations did not breed healthy people, merely prevented them from starving to death!
A BBC website tells us that Food Rationing finally came to an end in 1954. I was born in 1953. My Mother had been through fourteen years of deprivation during the war years, and no doubt was lacking in some of the most basic of vitamins and minerals. Her weight was low and now she had a baby in her womb to nourish.
Food rationing began on 8 January 1940, four months after the outbreak of war. Limits were imposed on the sale of bacon, butter and sugar. Then on 11 March 1940 all meat was rationed. Clothes coupons were introduced and a black market soon developed while queuing outside shops and bartering for extra food became a way of life. There were allowances made for pregnant women who used special green ration books to get extra food rations, and breastfeeding mothers had extra milk.
Restrictions were gradually lifted three years after war had ended, starting with flour on 25 July 1948, followed by clothes on 15 March 1949. On 19 May 1950 rationing ended for canned and dried fruit, chocolate biscuits, treacle, syrup, jellies and mincemeat.
Petrol rationing, imposed in 1939, ended in May 1950 followed by soap in September 1950. Three years later sales of sugar were off ration and last May butter rationing ended.
The demands on the body of a pregnant woman for nourishment for her unborn child are many. Pedro Rosso, M.D., of Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition, wrote in Nutritional Disorders of American Women that “contrary to the idea of foetal parasitism, there seem to be feedback mechanisms operating in the mother that would reduce the maternal supply line to the foetus when nutrients are in short supply.” (please note the term “foetal parasite” is not a negative term in use here – merely descriptive)
The consequences of maternal malnourishment may include health problems for the mother and an infant of low birth weight who may have nutritional and other deficiencies.
Nutrients for the foetus come from the mother’s diet, stored nutrients in the mother’s bones and tissues, and synthesis of certain nutrients in the placenta. The placenta facilitates the transfer of nutrients, hormones, and other substances from mother to foetus.
So here we have an example of maternal malnourishment and the unborn child (myself) receiving reduced nourishment (possibly) because of the (?) stress the pregnancy placed on my Mother’s body. I was born full term (1-2 weeks early) with a birth weight of just under 5lbs. This is probably not unusual for many babies born in post-war Britain/Europe at this time.
So was I a healthy baby? That is the million dollar question. According to my Mother I was a screamer from birth. A baby who was a poor feeder, colicky (her word’s not mine) and ‘difficult’ to handle. Mother could not breast feed me (medical issues on her part), so I was bottle fed. I do not know if that was a formula or cow’s milk. Whatever it was did not agree with me, because I threw up constantly and did not gain weight as well as I should have.
(As an interesting footnote: one of my own children was intolerant of milk and was weaned on Soy Formula)
At the age of two I was rushed into surgery with intussusceptions (bowel blockages) that were life threatening. Mother always blamed it on the fact that I screamed too much (grin), more likely it was due to food intolerance. These food intolerances have been identified within the last ten years, and are many and varied. Casein intolerance (milk protein) is one of them. I did suffer from, what the doctors call Irritable Bowel (IBS) all my life. It was not until recently that due to a food elimination diet, all the things I am intolerant of have been named specifically – including gluten, casein, soy, legumes, salicylates – and other’s.
How much damage can be done to the unborn child because of the lack of, or inappropriate/ poor nourishment during pregnancy? I would speculate much!
Going back to Chris Kressler’s article: The theory was first proposed by British researcher David J. Barker in the 1980s to explain a seeming contradiction: as British prosperity increased, so did heart disease. Yet geographically, the highest rates of heart disease were found in the poorest places in Britain. Barker found that rather than smoking, dietary fat or some other lifestyle cause, the factor that was most predictive of whether an individual would develop premature heart disease (before the age of 65) was their weight at birth.
Barker found that infants carried to full term with birth weights between 8.5 and 9.5 pounds had a 45 percent lower risk of developing heart disease later in life than infants born at 5.5 pounds. (They also had a lower risk of stroke, a 70% lower risk of insulin resistance and a slightly lower risk of blood pressure later in life.)
Oh My Goodness that is quite a theory isn’t it? So birth weight is a better predictor of the possibility of developing heart disease, than say smoking or dietary fats consumed. (Quiet now, don’t tell Ancel Keyes)
I have (born in 1953) 5 stents in my coronary arteries…… I was less than 5lbs born.
I watch my diet carefully, eating lower carbohydrates, to keep my type 2 diabetes (A1C’s) under control.
My blood pressure is managed with medications. I have LUPUS (autoimmune) plus a multitude of food and chemical intolerances which, if not carefully avoided, can cause me severe reactions.
The question begs asking if any of these issues could have been caused because of malnourishment inter-utero? David J. Barker and Chris Kessler would probably say YES!
An interesting theory, one I am certain to try and learn more about. If and when I do…… watch this space.
One final thought. Just how many post war babies I wonder…. now around my age or slightly older, are suffering from a multitude of ills, and have been told (a) ‘your bad lifestyle has caused you to be ill’, or (b) “you are simply getting old – get used to it!” Never would I expect a medical doctor to question and suspect nutritional status inter-utero as a possible cause.