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Sunday, 12 January 2020

Silent Miscarriage (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #11)

Miscarriage is a common medical complication that leads to the loss of a pregnancy before 23 weeks, and affects 1 in 4 women during their reproductive lifetime. Depending on how early or late it happens, it can have bigger or smaller impacts on a woman’s physical and mental health.

But why does it happen? Is it mostly to do with lifestyle, or genetics? Is there something you can do to prevent it? And how can we get early warnings of silent miscarriages – the ones you never even knew had happened?

If you’ve ever been pregnant – miscarriage or not – you’ll probably have wondered about these things, and worried about them, as I have. Whilst the chance of miscarriage drops off rapidly with time, stillbirth and postnatal foetal death are still classed as late pregnancy losses, and do happen from time to time, meaning there is no good time to truly forget about it.

Chances of miscarriage drop as pregnancy progresses. © TWDK. Data from:

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Thalidomide Scandal (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #10)

In 1953, a new drug was made, and by 1957 it was on the market. In the six years that followed, over 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with congenital deformities[1]. The disaster was known as the thalidomide scandal, and led to serious reforms in drug regulation and monitoring worldwide.

What happened?

Thalidomide was prescribed for insomnia, anxiety, asthma, hypertension, migraine, and morning sickness. Doctors thought that it was very safe because taking an overdose simply cast the drinker into a prolonged sleep – and did not cause death. It was also non-addictive. Nobody tested it in pregnant women or animals.

Then, in 1961, two doctors independently called out statistically high numbers of congenital abnormalities in “thalidomide babies” – 20% where the normal rate is 1.5% (or a bit higher, depending on your source)[2].

Thalidomide babies. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Alcohol and Caffeine (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #9)

It’s the Christmas season and, for many people, time to get merry. But pregnant women can’t drink – alcohol or caffeine – or can they?

All things, wrote Paracelsus, are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

And dose, apparently, works both ways. You may be able to have too much of a good thing, but you may also be able to have too little of a bad thing.

We often think that a drug does nothing to us until the point where it has an effect – the threshold dose. However, this describes a linear dose-response relationship… which doesn’t fit every drug. Researchers think that some substances follow a biphasic dose response: at some point they switch over from stimulating to inhibiting or from inhibiting to stimulating. Alcohol is one such drug.

This dose response phenomenon is known as hormesis, and is explained in more detail in this article.
The hormetic effect. © TWDK.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Biodiversity on Ice

Whilst 97% of water on earth is salty and 1% is freshwater, 2% is locked up in snow and ice – but never gets a mention in the national curriculum! However, as the planet warms due to climate change, the ice is melting, and this could have an unprecedented impact on habitats and biodiversity.

Interestingly, as more water becomes available and the climate becomes more temperate, what is observed is a loss of biodiversity. Specialist organisms designed for living in harsh, cold, wintry environments die or are out-competed by more common species already found in neighbouring environments. The conclusion is that the unforgiving glaciers provide pockets for more unusual lifeforms to flourish. These lifeforms are known as extremophiles.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Exercise (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #8)

I wasn’t sure how to break it to her. The midwife. That I was a climber.

My greatest fears in pregnancy was being told not to climb, abused by people for doing it anyway, and turfed out of climbing centres – and I had done my research: exercise is highly advantageous during pregnancy, and there are no controlled studies on climbing whilst pregnant.

The body changes during pregnancy

During pregnancy, your body changes and remodels itself to create a nest to house your foetus for 9 months. As the hormone relaxin floods your body, your ligaments relax and joints loosen. Your centre of gravity shifts, upsetting your sense of balance. Your need for oxygen increases, with an extra 20% of blood flowing through your body, and this can make your blood pressure drop, leaving you more prone to dizziness.

So you should definitely exercise – here’s why

Exercising is good when pregnant for the same reasons it's good when you're not, but it can have additional benefits, such as supporting circulation through you and your foetus, reducing cramping and back pain, and improving balance as your centre of mass shifts.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Reproductive Immunology (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #7)

Morning sickness aside, I haven’t felt unwell during my pregnancy. Of course, winter is coming and that could all change, but I have prepared myself with influenza and whooping cough inoculations. These vaccines will be inactivated. ‘Live’ vaccines are normally withheld from pregnant women because they could cause unborn babies to become infected, although the risk is low.



So why vaccinate during pregnancy? Not only does vaccinating yourself provide you with a good chance of fighting off a disease if you catch it, it can also incur herd immunity, making it difficult for the most vulnerable members of society to catch a disease, such as, oh, I don’t know, pregnant women and newborn babies, perhaps.

To read more about vaccination, check out our article on the topic.

Babies are vulnerable because their immune systems are starting from scratch: they’re born with just a few antibodies inherited from their mothers before getting their first inoculations and meeting everyday bacteria. Pregnant women are immunosuppressed. This means their ability to fight off disease is lowered during pregnancy.

Flu virus via Wikipedia Commons.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

What can poo do for you?

This is a guest blog article written by Sarah Bailey.

Don't be put off by the title! Scientists often collect bodily fluids (or solids, in the case of poo) as they can provide very useful information about how the body works. In Life Study, a ground breaking new project aiming to follow 60,000 babies from birth into childhood, we use these waste products to answer questions about one of the most topical research questions around: how do microbes in our guts affect health throughout life?

What is Life Study?


The Life Study logo.Source and copyright: Life Study.

Life Study is a cohort study; it’s recruiting 60,000 babies (and their mothers and fathers) to follow them into childhood and try to find out how events that happen early in life might affect long-term health. The study is run by researchers at University College London and is divided into several parts. My own work focuses on infection and immunity, and I’m trying to discover how bugs such as bacteria and viruses influence the immune system in early life, and what the knock-on affects are as children grow up.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Toxoplasmosis (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #6)

I once heard someone talking about arranging a hen do and struggling for ideas that would be okay for pregnant participants. At the time, I couldn’t see why it was so difficult… they were pregnant, not dead! …But I guess it depends how risk averse you are. If you’re avoid absolutely everything that could pose any tiny risk that includes alcohol, caffeine, household chemicals, saunas, certain foods, sports, paint, gardening, cats, non-stick frying pans and any person who could have an illness. In fact, staying locked indoors without human contact.

The outdoors thing intrigued me.

The great outdoors © TWDK.

So what is the risk?

Cat and mouse © TWDK.
The panic is over toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that will infect a third of people over their lifetimes. Most people never know: the zoonotic infection is asymptomatic in healthy adults, and humans are considered dead-end accidental hosts, because toxoplasma gondii can only reproduce in cats – and wants to get back in cats.