Cannabis use during pregnancy linked to poor development of child’s stress system

Study shows cannabis and pregnancy do not make a good mix.

Researchers say more women are using cannabis during pregnancy. NataliaDeriabina/Getty Images


A new study has added more understanding to the effects of cannabis use during pregnancy.

The paper shows that maternal use of cannabis negatively affects an important aspect of a child’s development.

In particular, investigators in the Netherlands cited a “dysregulation” during pregnancy of a fetus’ system that deals with stress.

They noted that this could lead to “long-term adverse” effects.

These include “cardiovascular, metabolic, immune and neurodevelopmental outcomes in offspring”.

To explain this part of the cannabis study, the human body has a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis.

This system involves the hypothalamus and pituitary gland found in the brain. Meanwhile, the adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys.

The HPA axis serves as the body’s coping mechanism to stress. The glands spring into action when something aggravating happens.

The body’s reaction produces a stress hormone called cortisol.

Moreover, cortisol regulates bodily functions in order for the person to react to the difficult situation.

For example, it increases blood pressure to improve the individual’s ability to move.

Cortisol levels typically get back to normal levels after things have calm down.

However, when this stays elevated always, it could lead to various health problems.

Cannabis, pregnancy and cortisol

In the study, researchers from the University Medical Center Rotterdam looked at cortisol levels of six-year-old kids.

From the results, they “cautiously suggest that children exposed to maternal cannabis use during pregnancy, in combination with tobacco, have altered HPA-axis function”.

The researchers stated that “higher hair cortisol concentrations” reflect this situation.

They also wrote that certain mechanisms may explain the findings.

First, “cannabis crosses the placenta and blood brain barrier” during pregnancy.

Second, cortisol concentrations in mothers during pregnancy may increase due to use.

The researchers noted that the findings “suggest that fetal life is a critical period for the maturation of the HPA-axis”.

Also, birth weight did not affect the “association between maternal cannabis use during pregnancy and hair cortisol concentration on offspring”.

The researchers noted that the prevalence of use by women during pregnancy has increased in the U.S.

The paper bears the title “Parental cannabis and tobacco use during pregnancy and childhood hair cortisol concentrations”.

The Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal made the work available online on May 21, 2021.

The paper’s authors are Kim N.Cajachagua-Torres, Vincent W.V.Jaddoe, Yolanda Rijke, Erica L.T.van den Akker,  Irwin K.M. Reiss,  Elisabeth F.C.van Rossum, and Hanan El Marroun.

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