Do you know what to stay away from during pregnancy? A lot of substances can have bad effects on pregnancy and the developing child. Therefore, knowing what to watch out for can help keep your baby safe and give him/her the best foundation possible.
Teratogens are agents that can cause or increase the incidence of birth defects in a developing child (1). Some of the most well-known teratogens include alcohol, nicotine, and ibuprofen.
Teratogenic agents are everywhere nowadays, from the air we breathe to the foods we eat. These include prescription medications, recreational drugs (like marijuana), chemical exposures, and infections of the mother.
Teratogens can have devastating effects when the exposure correlates with critical periods of organ development- also known as organogenesis. Early organ formation typically happens between weeks 4 to 8 of the embryonic period but continues throughout the pregnancy (2).
Different organs and systems continue to develop at different rates and stages, meaning that exposure at any point is dangerous. The central nervous system, for example, continues to develop past the embryonic stage and well into the fetal stage up until birth.
Teratogens in Food
Although a lot of teratogens are medications and recreational substances, plenty of them still make their way into our food. These are the ones that often less known and whose effects are hard to study.
Potential Teratogenic Foods
- Unpasteurized Animal Products: Pasteurization is a method used to kill bacteria in many dairy products. It involves heating up the product to a temperature where most bacteria cannot survive. Moreover, unpasteurized products represent a danger to pregnant women as a great number of disease-causing bacteria can be eaten and affect the health of mother and baby.
- Meat-Eating Fish: While contents in fish (like omega-3 fatty acids) benefit the developing child, they can also be a source contaminants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). For this reason, the recommendation is to limit the consumption of fish to twice and week and to eat lower in the food chain. Carnivorous fish, like swordfish and shark, eat other fish allow with their contaminants and thus have higher levels (3).
- Unwashed Produce: It is not news that much of the produce we find in the grocery store has been grown with the help of pesticides and fertilizers. Avoid exposure to potentially dangerous toxins by thoroughly washing food before consumption (4). Try to stick to certified organic food, and always wash it.
Maintaining a healthy diet itself can be challenging and when there is another life on the line concerns can escalate. If you have questions or dietary restrictions, consult a doctor or dietitian.
- TERATOGENS AND THEIR EFFECTS – Columbia University. www.columbia.edu/itc/hs/medical/humandev/2004/Chpt23-Teratogens.pdf.
- McKinley, Michael P., et al. Human Anatomy. McGraw-Hill Education, 2017.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “What to Do about Mercury in Fish.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/what-to-do-about-mercury-in-fish.
- “Pregnancy Nutrition: Foods to Avoid.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 Oct. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy-nutrition/art-20043844.