CanFASD: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Stress


In honour of International Stress Awareness Week, CanFASD is sharing some information about stress and how it relates to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

What is Stress?

Stress is a normal response that your body has to pressures in your environment. It is caused by chemicals called hormones that send signals to your body. These hormones cause people to sweat, tense up, and breathe faster. Stress activates someone’s “fight-or-flight” response, a system in the body that helps protect us from danger.   

Stress is a normal part of our daily lives and certain amounts of stress are important to help us function. Small doses of stress help us meet deadlines, get to places on time, and prepare for important events. However, long-term stress can be harmful and can lead to mental and physical health problems, like depression, substance use issues, and stroke.

Stress and Alcohol Consumption

When we’re stressed or anxious, we may turn to alcohol or other substances to help us cope with these feelings. However, using alcohol or other substances as a coping strategy is not healthy.

Alcohol impacts the balance of chemicals in our brain, affecting our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The more alcohol we drink, the greater the impact it can have on our brain and bodies. Alcohol can actually make us feel more anxious and depressed, which makes it harder for us to deal with stress.

Stress in pregnancy can cause fetal harm

Researchers have shown that stressful experiences during pregnancy can impact the mental health and bodily function of both the mother and child. Children who experience prenatal and early postnatal stress may be at an increased risk for neurological and psychiatric disorders. Stress can also impact the functioning of both the mother’s and child’s immune and nervous systems. 

Prenatal alcohol exposure interacts with stress

Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) causes changes to normal stress pathways in the brain, which impacts how people with PAE respond to stress. Prenatal exposure to stress may also aggravate the impacts that someone with PAE experiences. In a 2019 study looking at co-occurring exposures in 77 children with PAE, 86% of them had experienced toxic stress while in the womb. The authors were concerned that these co-occurring exposures may have unexpected and cumulative effects on development. These effects are anticipated to have a greater impact than just alcohol or just stress on their own.

Click here for the full CanFASD article!

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