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When planning a pregnancy, both the man and woman should immediately begin limiting alcohol consumption. Infertility problems and birth defects are potential consequences for those who do not. Alcohol is not a nutrient; it is a drug with direct toxic effects to a fetus, and the parents' reproductive systems. It provides calories, but these are 'empty calories' and can lead to undesirable weight gain and nutrient deficiencies. In addition to the health risks for offspring, excess alcohol consumption is associated with hypertension, obesity, stroke, cancer, and many other health problems for the drinker.

The effects of alcohol on the developing fetus are likely two-fold. It is believed that there are both direct toxic effects, as well as accompanying nutrient deficiencies. Both contribute to the negative outcomes of pregnancy. The full effects of alcohol use during pregnancy was first described in 1973 and were collectively named Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). The characteristics of FAS are described below and include defects of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and brain in addition to growth failure. FAS causes permanent disabilities in offspring.

It is unclear what dose and at what time during pregnancy alcohol causes the most serious effects in children. FAS children have been born to binge and chronic alcoholics alike. Further, women who drank moderately, one drink or less per day, have given birth to infants with FAS-like effects. Clearly, alcohol use during pregnancy is not yet established to be safe at any level and should be avoided. As there has been evidence suggesting some effects on psychomotor development to breast-fed infants when mom had only "one drink" per day, alcohol should be avoided during lactation also.

Characteristics of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Intrauterine growth retardation
  • Microcephaly, or small brain size
  • Mental retardation and developmental delay
  • Maxillary hypoplasia, or incomplete development of the upper jaw bone
  • Thin upper lip and flattening of the vertical groove in the middle portion
  • Cardiac abnormalities
  • Reduction in the width of palpebral fissures, the opening between eyelids

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