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08 Dec 2017

New research that examines alcohol consumption’s long-term negative health effects and how they could start even from the time of conception has been published.

Published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease and the American Journal of Physiology is one of the first studies to look at alcohol in preconception rather than during pregnancy.

Professor Karen Moritz from The University of Queensland’s Child Health Research Centre UQ said the research using animal models found that exposure to alcohol around conception made male offspring more likely to seek a high fat diet more often as they aged.

“We found that exposure to alcohol resulted in male offspring having a sustained preference for high-fat food, which indicated the reward pathway in the brain was altered by alcohol exposure around conception,” Professor Moritz said.

“Surprisingly we found alcohol exposure at this time had no effect on alcohol preference in offspring of either sex later in life.”

In the study, which was conducted on rats, the equivalent of four standard drinks was consumed every day for four days either side of mating. Male offspring which were exposed to alcohol in this way developed elevated preferences for foods high in fat.

The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol has been developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council. No alcohol consumption is their current recommendation for pregnant women, and those who planning a pregnancy.

The dangers of consuming alcohol whilst pregnant are well documented and widely acknowledged. The message that there is no safe level of fetal alcohol exposure has been widely disseminated for the best part of the last decade.

More is emerging about the impact of alcohol consumption prior to conception. A separate but related study by UQ found that male offspring of mothers who had consumed alcohol around conception had five per cent more body fat than offspring of mothers who had not consumed alcohol around conception.

Professor Moritz said the study also found both male and female offspring were more likely to suffer from fatty liver when exposed to alcohol at conception.

“Our results highlight that alcohol consumption, even prior to a fertilised egg implanting in the uterus, can have lifelong consequences for the metabolic health of offspring,” she said.

The research highlights the vulnerability of the developing embryo. Previous studies have identified a link between paternal alcohol consumption around conception and epigenetic alterations.

Given that half of all Australian pregnancies are unplanned, the challenge remains reducing alcohol exposure in the early stages of unplanned pregnancies, when the mother may not even know she is pregnant.

The AMA recently raised its concern that the Government’s new National Drug Strategy did not focus on alcohol – even though alcohol-related harm alone is estimated to cost $36 billion a year.

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has called for a national alcohol strategy.

The AMA position statement on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is available here:

The 2009 Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol can be found here:


Published: 08 Dec 2017