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Occasional alcohol during pregnancy may increase risk of diabetes in offspring

Pregnant women who enjoy the odd alcoholic drink at a family party might increase the risk of their male babies developing type 2 diabetes later in life, according to researchers.

While the effects are yet to be investigated in humans, researchers from the University of Queensland, have posed the question after carrying out a study in rats.

Researcher Dr Lisa Akison said the study was based on a pattern of ‘special occasion drinking’, whereby pregnant women may indulge in a drink or two at a birthday party or family barbecue.

During the testing, researchers discovered that minimal amounts of alcohol during pregnancy were associated with greater risk of male offspring developing insulin resistance.

She said: “We only gave alcohol to the mother rats on two days during their pregnancy. Their blood alcohol concentration only reached 0.05 per cent, and yet their male offspring recorded higher than normal insulin levels.”

The study showed male rats exposed to a low level of alcohol before they were born presented signs of developing diabetes at about six months old, but there was no impact on female offspring.

Dr Akison added: “There are a couple of potential reasons for this, one being that during pregnancy, the placenta adapts to a prenatal stress differently depending on if it’s a male or female fetus, and this can have an impact on fetal growth and development.”

“The other factor is hormone changes as offspring grow into adulthood. In this case, we know that oestrogen protects against insulin-resistance, and because males don’t have high oestroge, they don’t experience the same protection.”

The research raises a question over whether the occasional drink may affect humans in a similar way. Carrying out research on humans of this kind presents a greater challenge for researchers as there are stricter ethical regulations with human studies than in animal ones.

Dr Akison added: “More research is needed to establish any definitive link between alcohol and insulin resistance in humans.

“But this study does suggest that even a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy could be harmful, so if you’re planning on getting pregnant it might be wise not to drink.”

Chief Medical Officers for the UK advise that women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy do not drink alcohol to minimise future health risks for the offspring.

The study is published in The Journal of Physiology.

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