Reading pregnancy stories, you come away with the feeling that pregnancy is a time of mixed joyous celebration and eternal aggravation. On the one hand, your body is making a baby and that’s pretty cool. On the other, the list of things that you aren’t allowed to do/eat/enjoy— and the list of things your body forces you to do — can make already-difficult pregnancies even harder.
But women everywhere take these precautions anyway. Because babies are important, no one wants to hurt their unborn child, and because the judgmental hell of eating some sushi while pregnant is something that I can only imagine in my worst nightmares.
According to the news, it isn’t enough. Media sources everywhere are reporting that not only are shellfish off the menu, women have yet another thing to feel guilty about during pregnancy.
Apparently, painkillers are hurting unborn babies. Specifically, making them less likely to have babies of their own.
But it turns out there’s not much to worry about at all.
The terrifying stories from around the world — including my favourite from the Express in the UK “Fertility WARNING as painkillers claimed to affect unborn children” — are talking about a new study released in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives that looks at paracetamol and ibuprofen (Tylenol/Panadol and Neurofen) and possible issues with pregnancy.
The researchers actually did some pretty cool science here. They took human foetal cells — specifically cells related to later fertility — and grafted them onto rats, which they then exposed to the drugs. They also exposed non-grafted cells in petri dishes, and observed a number of changes in how they developed. These changes are thought to potentially impact fertility later in life.
Basically, the paracetamol and ibuprofen caused the feotal cells to develop less of what’s known as ‘germ cells’, which are the building blocks for sperm and eggs. Because of this, the scientists concluded that exposure to the drugs was potentially linked to fertility problems for children whose mothers took these drugs during pregnancy.
But what does it mean to you?
One of the main issues with pregnancy is that developing foetuses are extremely vulnerable, so even the things that usually wouldn’t spare a second thought can be a serious issue. While a healthy adult can recover easily from things like listeria and salmonella, these infections can cause real harm to an unborn child.
What this means is that pregnancy recommendations are very cautious. There are very few painkillers that doctors recommend during pregnancy. And by very few, I mean one: paracetamol. In general, the recommendation is to take the lowest dose possible for the shortest amount of time possible and only really that one drug.
So the first thing to note is that this study doesn’t really make much difference to the guidelines at all. Yes, foetuses are very vulnerable, and yes you should try and limit exposure to lots of things, but doctors already recommend that women take as few painkillers as possible during pregnancy anyway.
But even more importantly: this study is very preliminary. The study itself may lead to more investigative work in people, but at this point we aren’t really sure if there is an effect or not. Testing issues in rats and petri dishes is great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people will have the same problems. There is some evidence that paracetamol is linked to fertility issues in people, but it’s certainly not definitive at this point.
Overall, this study warrants further research, but to the individual it’s so far removed that it’s hard to say there are any take-homes. Rats with human-grafted cells might behave entirely differently to actual developing foetuses. The cells were only exposed for 7 days, so long-term exposure might have different effects.
Not quite as scary as the media stories made it seem after all.
Anyone who actually had a look at this study would realize that it isn’t actually all that scary. Doing tests on human cells grafted on to rats is fascinating, but pretty far removed from actual people living in the real world.
And we see this all the time. Every time a study is published that shows terrible problems in cells in a petri dish, fearful stories pop up in every news outlet across the globe. Cells in a lab have changes to their fat composition? Artificial sweeteners are killing you! Splashing turmeric onto some rats makes them live longer? Turmeric is a miracle cure!
It’s all the same nonsense. Studies in rats and cells in labs are amazingly good at allowing us to look at how complex interactions take place, and can inform the development of treatments and practice guidelines.
But they don’t tell us much at all about how things will work in people in the real world.
So just remember next time you see a scary story in the media; if it hasn’t been tested in actual living people, take a second look.
Chances are it won’t actually mean all that much to your life.
And if you’re pregnant? Don’t worry too much. Talk to your GP about what medications you can/should take, and try and ignore the judgmental stares. They’re all just jealous anyway.
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