A good start for the pregnant mother – diet/prevention/risk
The first, and easiest, thing a mother to be can do is to eat for two: This doesn’t mean doubling up on servings it means remembering that the vitamins and minerals from a well-balanced diet not only nourish mom’s brain and body but the brain and body of her developing baby. Pregnant women need proper amounts of folic acid, vitamin B12 (crucial to the functioning of the central nervous system), fatty acids, iron, and other nutrients. She should consult her obstetrician about taking prenatal vitamins, which contain many of these substances and fill in any nutritional gaps in her diet.
Good nutrition is vital for healthy brain development. Lack of nutrients at crucial moments in fetal brain development leads to a drop or even a halt in the creation of neurons. Babies born after suffering malnutrition often display a smaller brain and have cognitive disabilities. Lack of folic acid (found abundantly in bread, beans, pasta, spinach, and orange juice) raises the chances of a child being born with spina bifida. On the other hand, too much of a good thing can be bad. Overabundance of certain vitamins, including A and D, can cause toxic reactions in the fetal brain. The best advice for a mother to be is to consult her doctor about the best diet for her, one with lots of fresh fruits, leafY green vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean meats.
To decrease the chances of neurological defects, moms to be should also avoid many substances that can harm an unborn child’s brain, such as alcohol. In 1899, William Sullivan, a doctor who studied babies born in an English women’s prison, discovered much higher rates of still-births among mothers who drank heavily. He suspected a link between alcohol and fetal health when he noted that mothers who gave birth to babies with severe birth defects in the outside world had healthy babies in prison, where they were denied alcohol.
It would take more than seven decades before researchers at the University of Washington cataloged the recurring patterns of birth defects as fetal alcohol syndrome. When pregnant women drink heavily, their children are at high risk of having a malformed heart and limbs, a smaller brain, reading and math disabilities, hyperactivity, depression, and distinctive facial abnormalities. Mental retardation also is possible. Unfortunately, alcohol’s most devastating impact on a developing fetus occurs early in the pregnancy, when the mother may not even know she is carrying a child. And small amounts in the first trimester cause more damage than greater alcohol consumption later on, apparently because of alcohol’s impact on the migration of developing neurons In the fetal brain. Normally, neurons stop their travels when they reach their intended destinations. The presence of alcohol makes them overshoot and die.
JUST SAY NO
Other substances harmful to adults are even more so to a developing fetus, whose brain is especially sensitive to its chemical environment. Tobacco, illegal drugs such as cocaine, and environmental toxins, all of which do some level of harm to an adult’s body, deliver hammer blows to a developing fetus and can even cause harmful impacts on sperm cells, so men should consider their levels of exposure before trying to start a family. Sperm live for about three months. To minimize the chances of their sperm being adversely affected by alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and toxins, fathers to be should avoid exposure to such harmful substances for 90 days.
For pregnant women, tobacco smoke is the most common environmental hazard to a fetus. Nicotine in tobacco causes blood vessels to constrict; an affected fetus gets less blood, and its heart rate decreases. Furthermore, nicotine becomes more concentrated in the fetus’s body than in that of the mother. Like alcohol, nicotine is believed to interfere with neuronal migration, connection, and development. Spontaneous abortion rates nearly double for mothers who smoke. Babies carried to term are more likely to be mentally retarded and have congenital abnormalities.
SEEK OUT HIDDEN RISKS
Toxins harmful to a fetus range from obvious hazards such as the poisons in pesticides to common and seemingly harmless substances such as vitamin A, which in high concentrations (such as in acne medication) harms a fetus’s brain. Lead particles, many over the counter and prescription medicines, x-rays, and some cancer drugs also poison a developing brain.
The jury is out on the possible impact of antidepressants. A pregnant woman’s use of Prozac, a common prescription only treatment for depression, so far has been shown to have no impact on her child’s behaviour, language, or intellectual abilities. Yet children of mothers who took Prozac during pregnancy have been found to have a higher rate of minor congenital abnormalities, such as more wrinkles in the palms of their hands. Because the effects of medication on mother and child are complex and in many cases not fully understood, women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant should consult with their doctors about their use of prescription drugs.
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