Women who consume alcohol, use mind-altering drugs or abuse mind-altering medications while pregnant substantially increase their risks for experiencing pregnancy outcomes that seriously harm the health of their developing children. Stress is one of the known predictors of substance abuse among pregnant women and all other adult populations. In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Connecticut Health Center explored the impact that stress has on the odds that a woman will use illegal or illicit drugs during pregnancy or in the postpartum period that follows pregnancy.
Pregnancy and Substance Use
Pregnant women and their developing children have interconnected circulation systems. This means that any substance flowing through the bloodstream of a pregnant woman will ultimately pass into her child’s bloodstream. Developing children lack the means to process drugs or alcohol and to thereby reduce the dangers associated with exposure to those substances. For this and other reasons, exposure to drugs or alcohol can seriously or severely alter the normal course of fetal growth and development and either completely disrupt the course of pregnancy or produce highly damaging short- and/or long-term effects in a newborn child.
Perhaps the most well-documented risks for substance use during pregnancy are the risks associated with alcohol consumption. Pregnant women who drink expose their developing children to a range of conditions known collectively as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASDs. In addition to miscarriages and stillbirths, damaging outcomes linked to these conditions include dangerously low birth weight, premature birth and various types of birth defects. Prescription medication abuse and drug abuse during pregnancy can trigger the same issues for a pregnant woman and her developing child. Substance withdrawal can also cause significant problems. Generally speaking, the peak of substance-related risk in pregnant women occurs in the earlier phases of pregnancy; however, there is considerable risk associated with substance abuse in all phases of pregnancy.
Women and Stress
Stress is a natural phenomenon that can significantly damage mental and physical well-being when it occurs repeatedly over time or appears in severe or excessive form. Figures compiled by the American Psychological Association indicate that American women have substantially higher chances of reporting excessive stress exposure than American men. In addition, American women are more likely to report an increase in their stress levels over the past five years of their lives. When exposed to recurring or heavy stress, women also have higher chances than men of experiencing mentally and/or physically damaging stress reactions. Known gender-specific stress factors for women include the hormone fluctuations associated with pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and monthly menstruation.
Stress, Pregnancy and Drug Use
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the University of Connecticut researchers used a small-scale project to explore the impact that stress has on the odds that a woman will use an illegal or illicit drug during pregnancy or during the days, weeks and months following pregnancy. A total of 49 women were enrolled in this project; all of these women had a history of recent drug use when the project began and subsequently became pregnant while still actively participating in the project. The researchers asked each participant to detail her drug use at five separate times: four months prior to becoming pregnant, during her first trimester of pregnancy, during her second trimester of pregnancy, during her third trimester of pregnancy and half a year after she gave birth. The researchers also asked all of the women to describe their stress levels at each of these five times.
After analyzing the participants’ self-reports, the researchers found that most of the women experienced a reduction in their stress levels over the course of their pregnancies. However, some of the women experienced an increase in their stress levels. The researchers concluded that, among those women whose stress levels rose, the chances of using illicit/illegal drugs increased substantially in the timeframe between two months prior to pregnancy and the end of the second trimester of pregnancy. This finding did not apply to the third trimester of pregnancy. However, the researchers concluded that heightened stress levels predict drug use again starting roughly half a year after the end of pregnancy.