Recent studies have found an association between cannabis use during pregnancy and adverse outcomes for both mothers and infants, sparking renewed concern among healthcare professionals.
Previous Research Conflicting, But New Large-Scale Studies Show Clear Risks
Past research on the impacts of cannabis use during pregnancy has been mixed. Some studies found links to issues like low birth weight, while others found little evidence of harm. This led some to believe cannabis was relatively safe for expecting mothers.
However, several large-scale studies published this week challenge that notion. The research overwhelmingly points to increased risks of complications and poor health outcomes for babies exposed to cannabis in utero.
One study published in JAMA Network Open looked at over 6 million pregnant women across 5 countries, assessing associations between self-reported cannabis use and adverse outcomes. Cannabis-exposed infants had a significantly higher risk for multiple issues:
|Low birth weight
|Small for gestational age
Lead author Kartik Venkatesh from the University of Calgary said these findings definitively show cannabis isn’t harmless during pregnancy, stating “there is no known safe amount, safe trimester or safe product.”
Impacts Likely Caused By THC Exposure
Researchers believe many of the impacts are likely caused by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. THC is known to cross the placental barrier and enter the developing fetus.
Animal studies have found THC alters crucial brain development processes during gestation. The concern is similar exposure in humans could negatively affect things like brain structure, connectivity, and function later in childhood.
There is also evidence tying THC to issues with the placenta itself. The placenta transports oxygen and nutrients to the fetus – if placental development or function is disrupted, it could starve the fetus of vital resources needed to grow and thrive.
More research is still needed, butAuthors emphasize we cannot rule out cannabis as being harmless until we fully elucidate these biological impacts of THC and other cannabis compounds on maternal and fetal health.
Usage Rates Rising Among Pregnant Women
Despite the emerging health risks, data shows more pregnant women are using cannabis products. One study found usage among pregnant Californians rose from 6.9% in 2009 to 15.7% in 2020.
With societal shifts in attitudes and legalization expanding access, some women may view cannabis as a relatively safe way to alleviate issues like pregnancy-related nausea. However, authors of the new studies argue risks clearly outweigh any potential benefits.
They advocate regulatory bodies should consider more restrictive policies, including prominent warning labels about harms and avoiding recommendations that downplay dangers to vulnerable groups. Some also push for screenings to better monitor usage rates and enable patient education.
Uncertain Impacts Later in Childhood
While the immediate health risks are concerning, less in known about potential long-term impacts on offspring. Because human studies span relatively short periods, they cannot capture outcomes manifesting later in childhood.
Some researchers speculate endocannabinoid systems disrupted by fetal THC exposure may trigger subtle neurological issues years down the road. These include problems with memory, higher cognition, emotional processing, and behavioral regulation.
More longitudinal research tracking development is required to examine if these hypothesized cannabis-related harms do emerge over time. If evidence links maternal cannabis use to lasting neurological changes or impulse control issues, it would underscore the pressing need for preventative interventions.
Takeaway: More Evidence of Risk But Nuance Required
It’s important the nuance of this topic is communicated responsibly by media, healthcare providers, and public health institutions. While new data indicates cannabis exposure affects maternal and infant health more than previously thought, the size of risk likely depends on dosage, timing, genetics, and more.
However, until we fully understand these contingencies, the wise choice for women who are pregnant is to exercise utmost caution and avoid cannabis use given potential consequences revealed in recent studies. This will ensure the best possible pregnancy outcomes while long term research continues investigating impacts on the most vulnerable.
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