We know that the environment significantly impacts our health. People who live in areas prone to industrial waste, poor air or water quality, and crime have higher risks for cardiovascular disease, severe asthma, and stress-induced illnesses. Children who grow up under these conditions can experience a failure to thrive.
As ob.gyns., we also recognize that the intrauterine environment plays a key role in influencing embryonic and fetal development. For this reason, we counsel our pregnant patients to eat well-balanced diets, drink healthy amounts of water, get plenty of rest, and incorporate physical activity into their daily routines. Indeed, the seminal work by Sir David Barker demonstrated that the roots of chronic diseases – including hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes – begin in utero. We truly are where we live – from before birth up through adulthood.
Because the womb environment, where we spend the first critical 9 months of life, dramatically affects our lifelong health, we advise against the use of certain medications and other substances during pregnancy. Some of these recommendations seem clear-cut: Don’t smoke and significantly reduce or abstain from alcohol consumption; illicit drugs – such as cocaine or heroin – should never be used. However, gray areas exist. For example, although anticonvulsants carry higher risks for congenital malformations, patients who experience seizures may need to continue taking antiepileptic drugs during pregnancy, especially those with long safety records.
One of the newer challenges the medical community in general must face is the broadened use and wider societal acceptance of cannabis. Currently legal in 33 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., medical marijuana now is viewed as another legitimate tool in the health care arsenal, rather than the off-limits, off-label substance it was less than a generation ago.
Although proponents may tout the health benefits of cannabis and related products like cannabidiol, it remains unclear what the long-term effects of routine use may have on development, especially fetal development.However, how we as ob.gyns. navigate conversations with our patients around substance use remains crucial to our delivery of the best possible prenatal care.
We have invited Katrina S. Mark, MD, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, to examine use of cannabis in pregnancy and the need for maintaining trust in the patient-practitioner relationship when discussing substance use during prenatal counseling.
Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland School of Medicine as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. He is the medical editor of this column. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Contact him at [email protected].