No amount of alcohol safe in pregnancy

11 June 2019

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol in the first weeks of pregnancy could affect how the placenta is formed and lead to nutrient deficiencies in the embryo, a University of Queensland study has found.

UQ Child Health Research Centre Director Professor Karen Moritz said some women unknowingly exposed their babies to the effects of alcohol in the womb because they did not realise they were pregnant.

“The research shows that alcohol can negatively affect the growth of the early embryo and the stem cells, which become the placenta,” Professor Moritz said.

Professor Moritz and her team used a rat model to feed mothers alcohol around the period of conception.

The timing relates to the week before conception and the first week of pregnancy in humans.

“After alcohol exposure, the placenta was poorly formed, and was not able to give the foetus all the nutrients it needed to grow.”

The first week of pregnancy is a crucial for the development of the embryo as it starts to express its own genes and form the placenta; what becomes its complete source of nourishment for the next 40 weeks.

“Current evidence suggests that up to 30 per cent of women drink in the early stages of pregnancy because they did not realise they were pregnant or because it was unplanned,” she said.

“These first weeks are a very sensitive time in pregnancy as the womb is highly susceptible to environmental changes.

“The babies exposed to alcohol were also much smaller than those who didn’t receive any alcohol.

“This is a significant result, as babies who are born small have a higher risk of getting adult diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

“While these diseases are detrimental to human health and wellbeing, they are also a significant burden on the public health system.

“Knowing how they are caused can help to inform public health policy and aid in their prevention.”

UQ PhD scholar Dr Jacinta Kalisch-Smith who led the study said the findings were due in part to a deficiency in one essential nutrient – choline.

“This current study shows that the effects of alcohol consumption on the embryo were due to a decrease in the amount of the dietary nutrient choline,” Dr Kalisch-Smith said.

“Choline acts on the same pathway as folate, which is often given in pre-pregnancy supplements.

“The next step in this research is to see whether giving supplemental choline in the diet, like folate, may lessen or even prevent the impacts of alcohol during pregnancy.”   

Choline is present in foods like beef liver, soybeans, eggs, broccoli and spinach.

This research is published in Development (DOI: 10.1242/dev.172205).

Media: Professor Karen Moritz,; Faculty of Medicine Communications,, +61 7 3365 5118, +61 436 368 746.