Dangers of Substance Abuse: Fertility and Childbirth

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“Will they be happy? Will they be healthy? Will I be good enough to give them the life they need? What if I can’t do it?” These are questions that plague just about every new parent. There are even some out there who desperately want to be parents, but will constantly put it off because they don’t know if they have the chops. Then, there are others who are less discerning. They might ask these same questions of themselves, but they also might engage in casual substance abuse without considering its effects on fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. In the worst cases, certain effects on pregnancy could result in the loss of the mother, the child, or both.

We aren’t saying that such parents are bad people. Much like addicts and alcoholics who wind up facing devastating legal issues, they simply fall prey to the horrors of a cunning disease, mixed with an unhealthy dose of reckless behavior and impaired judgment. They might not know that substance abuse could have such effects on pregnancy and the health of the child. And that’s if they are able to become pregnant at all.

Below, we’ll examine some of the most common effects of substance abuse on male and female reproductive systems. We’ll also explore the effects on pregnancy, and how substance abuse can result in harm to the unborn child.

Effects on Male Reproductive Systems

Heavy drinking has been associated with infertility, as well as impotence. (Shutterstock)
Heavy drinking has been associated with infertility, as well as impotence. (Shutterstock)

Before talking about substance abuse and its effects on pregnancy and childbirth, we should discuss the issue of reproduction itself. Many people may want children, and may even be willing to seek help for their addiction in order to ensure that they are ready for the responsibility of child-rearing. But is it possible for the effects of substance abuse to be so debilitating as to make this impossible? Just how badly can drugs and alcohol effect the male and female reproductive systems? We’ll begin by talking about the male.

A study from 2012 showed that many major drugs including marijuana, cocaine, opioid narcotics, methamphetamines and anabolic-androgenic steroids can all have negative effects on male fertility. Some may be surprised to see marijuana on this list. After all, despite knowledge of its addictive tendencies, those who advocate for its use often make it out to be the healthiest drug around. They say that it can help to modulate such severe diseases as cancer and Parkinson’s disease, while also regulating certain mood disorders. This has generally been the primary sticking point of certain members within groups like NORML, who wish to see cannabis made legal across the country.

We’ve already touched upon co-occurring disorders for marijuana and other drugs in the past, so we won’t mention the issue of mood disorders. As for cancer and Parkinson’s? Well, the study we linked above actually seems to indicate that, to some extent, this is true; however, the same study found that endocannabinoid receptors in the testes and in the sperm can lead to interaction between THC (the primary psychoactive chemical found in marijuana) and the male reproductive system. And while human studies were generally performed on chronic users, studies on rats have indicated that THC has a long half-life, and that as little as 0.06% of the common dose they administered was still enough to effect sperm motility. In other words, while quitting may return the reproductive systems to a state of normalcy, it will take some time. The low dosage also indicates that even second-hand smoke could result in male infertility.

Second to marijuana, opioid narcotics are one of the most abused substances by adult males. Prescription painkillers and heroin have been found to inhibit the release of certain hormones, leading to an overall decrease in testosterone levels. Cocaine and crack cocaine have led to similar results, and have been found to result in low sperm motility as well as a low sperm count that does not begin to normalize for as long as two years after abuse has ended. Meth and MDMA (Ecstasy) have not been as thoroughly studied and their effects appear to vary from user to user, but they have been found to damage sperm DNA as well as creating edema (swelling due to excess fluids) in the testes. Steroids also have significant side effects that negatively impact male fertility.

Alcohol has also been found to negatively impact sperm maturation, and has been associated with infertility as well as impotence. In short, there is really no “safe” substance to abuse if a male wishes to avoid negative effects on the reproductive systems. Fertility, and even sexual enjoyment, is put at risk when substances are heavily abused.

Effects on Female Reproductive Systems

The effects of drug abuse on female fertility are well-documented as well, to the extent that VICE, a publication usually known to be somewhat cynical, ran its own piece on the negative effects of illicit substances on the female reproductive system. And while the tone is occasionally somewhat flip, they did their research. Not being a scientific publication, they asked three doctors to explain to them just how far-reaching some of these effects could be.

Their interview questions pertained to many of the same drugs explored above in terms of male infertility. With marijuana, the primary issue was that it could affect the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, the same areas affected in the hormone decreases found in men. It was found that women who smoked marijuana, especially when they did so within a year of trying to become pregnant, had many more troubles ovulating. The egg was also less likely to become properly implanted in the uterus. And without implantation of the embryo, pregnancy is impossible. It was found that these issues were especially common with women who had used marijuana within a year of trying to conceive.

They also mentioned that addiction to opiates and opioid medications is becoming an epidemic, something we mentioned briefly in our article on stereotypes against addicts. In terms of female reproductive systems, opiate use has been found to cause hypogonadism. In layman’s terms, women who use opiates are more likely to miss their periods. Given that this also happens to some women who take birth control, it should come as no surprise that the result is often infertility.

Cocaine is apparently the worst of two worlds. Much like marijuana, it interferes with ovulation. Much like opiates, it causes imbalances in the menstrual cycle. It also damages the fallopian tubes and possibly the uterus. Meth, speed, and MDMA are not as well-studied, as was the case with male infertility. However, given the effects it can have on an unborn child (more on that later), its use is certainly not suggested when wishing to conceive.

Alcohol is also a subject of some debate. The effects of alcohol on female fertility appear to be dependent largely on the dosage. Of course, for those who suffer from alcoholism, that’s more or less splitting hairs. The effects of alcohol on fertility may not be as bad as the effects of some drugs mentioned above, but there are comparable to the effects of caffeine and smoking. This is especially true in the cases of women who are pregnant, which we will explore further in the sections below.

Effects on Pregnant Women

Pregnant women who abuse substances endanger not only their children, but also themselves. (Shutterstock)
Pregnant women who abuse substances endanger not only their children, but also themselves. (Shutterstock)

Believe it or not, drinking amongst pregnant women is a topic that receives quite a bit of debate. For instance, there is an article by The Guardian which states that it is counterproductive to tell pregnant women that they can’t drink. Why? In their words: “…advising pregnant women to drink no alcohol risks stigmatising responsible drinkers to the extent that few, if any, will admit to how much they are drinking – something that is essential to meet the FASD Trust’s goal of identifying at-risk children.”

So just to be clear, this particular belief indicates that someone can drink enough that it might harm her child, yet still be considered a “responsible drinker.” And yet there are women who claim to have had numerous drinks throughout pregnancy, without a single terrible effect. How is this possible? How is it possible that VICE, the publication we just quoted, cannot reproduce statistics on negative prenatal drug habits, yet states adamantly that those who use amphetamines while pregnant will suffer from terrible side effects? Well, first of all, they do so because women who use amphetamines while pregnant may be subject to stroke, seizures, arrhythmia and hypothermia. In other words, it’s a dangerous drug to use while pregnant. This is not a surprise.

What is surprising is that pregnant women still use drugs and alcohol every year. Some believe the problem is that many are not well-educated on the subject. While this may be the case with substances such as caffeine, it seems as if the dangers of drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, opiates and methamphetamines would be relatively intuitive. But while some women might be subconsciously aware that substance abuse may have effects on the child, fewer may be aware of the effects that it will have on them.

According to the Global Library of Women’s Medicine, women who use any illicit substances while pregnant are prone to experience many symptoms aside from those listed above in relation to methamphetamines. For instance, some will experience respiratory issues or cardiovascular problems. They might also suffer from bacterial infections, gastrointestinal problems, and even various psychoses. And while the Global Library states that organ damage is only a rare occurrence, they also state that vitamin deficiencies are relatively common and that the most frequently seen issues are psychiatric comorbidity and sexually transmitted diseases.

Obviously, sexually transmitted diseases do not occur as a result of drug use alone. They are the result of using sex without protection, or sharing needles. There are a number of common STDs, some of which are life threatening. While some drug users may suffer from STDs prior to becoming pregnant, others develop their illness while they are pregnant. Sometimes, the same encounter which resulted in pregnancy will also be responsible for the STD in question. Not only can STDs be harmful to the expectant mother, but they can endanger the child as well.

Effects on Unborn Children

If you’re struggling with addiction and want to have a healthy child, seek help today. (Crown Imprints)
If you’re struggling with addiction and want to have a healthy child, seek help today. (Crown Imprints)

Substance abuse and its effects on pregnancy are not limited to the mother, but extend to the child as well. First, there is the case of STDs, mentioned above. Children born to those with STDs will sometimes inherit the disease themselves. While some people fear that there is a stigma associated with having a disease such as HIV, the fact of the matter is that many people are born with it. It makes life much harder for them, due not only to the symptoms of the illness itself but also the public attitude toward the condition from which they suffer.

Even in cases where STDs do not arise from the addict’s substance use, there can still be fairly extreme effects on pregnancy and childbirth. Most people have heard the term “crack baby” at one point or another, but not everyone understands what this term really means. Children who are exposed to cocaine or crack cocaine while still in the womb will often suffer from impaired cognition and will not be as able to process information when they are older. This can stunt their development, and keep them from becoming the person they might have been if not exposed to the substance in question.

The same might be said of those who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. As the name suggests, this syndrome is caused by drinking while pregnant. Alcohol’s effects on pregnancy and the developing fetus include stunted growth rates, heart defects, and poor development. Even the child’s appearance can be affected, particularly around the face. The eyes will be narrower, the jaw and head will be smaller, and the upper lip will look different. While the effects on appearance are unfortunate, however, it is the heart defects that make fetal alcohol syndrome so dangerous.

The above conditions are bad, but remember that these are cases in which the child survived through birth. Many children are able to overcome these conditions in order to live happy and healthy lives, although their hardship could have been avoided through abstention from drugs and alcohol during fetal development. However, drugs and alcohol can have much more treacherous effects on pregnancy, and many children are lost before they are even born. This should not happen. Pregnant women and their children should not have to suffer from the effects of drugs and alcohol on fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. Unfortunately, the nature of addiction will make it too difficult for many of them to quit, even when they are aware of the dire consequences.

If you are pregnant or thinking of conceiving, and you need help battling your disease, consider taking advantage of our programs to overcome your addiction. If you know someone who is endangering themselves or their unborn child, then stage an intervention. It just might save a life.

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