Can CBD cause fetal alcohol syndrome?

  • In a 2019 study, which was published in Nature Research Journal, researchers found that the brain and facial developmental effects caused by the exposure of animal subjects to cannabinoids CBD and THC were very similar to what is seen in fetal alcohol syndrome in humans(1).
  • Results of the said study also showed that when alcohol was administered together with either CBD or THC, the congenital disabilities doubled.
  • Unfortunately, defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are not reversible. If a child is suspected of having fetal alcohol syndrome, talk to a doctor immediately.
  • Given the lack of information on the use of marijuana, its cannabinoids, and CBD oil during pregnancy, experts advise pregnant women to refrain from using CBD and any cannabis products during pregnancy.

CBD and FAS

A 2019 study, published in Scientific Reports, tested whether cannabinoids intensify alcohol-induced congenital disabilities(2). The study was the first research to show such a connection in mammals.

Results showed how a single exposure to cannabinoids during early pregnancy could cause growth problems in a developing embryo.
The investigation was performed in mice, which are very accurate models for the development that occurs during early pregnancy, according to Scott Parnell, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and assistant professor of cell biology and physiology in the UNC School of Medicine.

In the study, cannabinoids and cannabinoids with alcohol were given in varying amounts on day eight of the animals’ pregnancy, which is equivalent to the third and fourth weeks of human pregnancy.

This period is when alcohol and cannabinoid exposure is most damaging to a growing embryo, and the time when some women do not realize they are pregnant.

The CBD amounts administered to the mice were equivalent to the accepted therapeutic range for humans. Meanwhile, the THC concentration given was comparable to levels reached by a person smoking marijuana.

In the study, researchers found that the brain and facial developmental effects caused by exposure to cannabinoids CBD and THC were very similar to what is seen in fetal alcohol syndrome.

Parnell and his team of researchers also found that when cannabinoids and alcohol interact, the probability of these congenital disabilities more than doubled.

Parnell says that CBD and THC may be causing defects due to the interactions at the cellular level that disrupt the signaling between cells and molecules that regulate growth and development.

According to Parnell, there is a lack of information on the use of marijuana, its cannabinoids, and products like CBD oil during pregnancy in humans. He also reiterated that there is no safe period to consume alcohol during pregnancy, and the research shows the same is true of marijuana use.

“The interaction between alcohol and cannabinoids we witnessed is very concerning. Previous studies have shown that cannabinoids and alcohol are frequently used together, and for pregnant women, we’re learning that could be very dangerous to a developing child.”

—Eric Fish, Ph.D., author of the study and research associate in the UNC School of Medicine Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies

The Dangers of Using Cannabis During Pregnancy

CBD oil is extracted mainly from hemp plants and is neither psychoactive nor addictive. It has been gaining popularity among people who are searching for a natural remedy for ailments such as stress and pain.

Pregnant women who experience discomforts brought about by their pregnancy, such as pain, nausea, and vomiting, might be inclined to use CBD.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine suggests that using CBD can reduce pain and inflammation(3).

The researchers also found that subjects were not likely to develop a tolerance to the effects of CBD, eliminating the need to increase their dose continually.

In the British Journal of Pharmacology, a 2011 study shows how CBD may alleviate nausea and vomiting produced by chemotherapy(4).

However, given the lack of longitudinal research on human subjects on the use of CBD oil during pregnancy, women are advised against using it under any circumstances.

Doctors are also wary about recommending it because of its close association with marijuana and the lack of research on it alone.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), in its 2017 Committee Opinion, states that “Pregnant women or women contemplating pregnancy should be encouraged to discontinue use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in favor of alternative therapy for which there are better pregnancy-specific safety data(5).”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has also warned pregnant women against using any marijuana byproducts, citing the effects of marijuana on fetal development and later neurodevelopmental and behavioral outcomes(6).

“I am emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.”

— Surgeon General VADM Jerome Adams

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in its Consumer Updates, also strongly advises against the use of CBD, THC, and marijuana in any form when pregnant or while breastfeeding(7).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking or vaping marijuana when pregnant may also be damaging to the fetus(8). When expectant mothers smoke or consume marijuana, chemicals go through the placenta and reach the fetus.

Meanwhile, a 2011 study published by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated the long-term behavioral consequences of maternal exposure to cannabinoids during pregnancy and lactation(9).

Although the aforementioned study was conducted on animal subjects, and it did not specifically examine the impact of CBD when used alone, the researchers say that their findings are in line with clinical studies reporting hyperactivity and cognitive impairments in humans exposed in utero to cannabis.

What is FAS?

FAS or fetal alcohol syndrome is a congenital medical condition in a child that is a consequence of alcohol exposure during the mother’s pregnancy.

While symptoms of FAS differ from child to child, the condition may also lead to brain damage and growth problems. Unfortunately, the defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are not reversible.

According to a 2019 review published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, alcohol is extremely teratogenic (causes developmental malformations) to a fetus, and its effects are irreversible(10).

The authors said that there is no safe time during pregnancy in which any amount of alcohol can be consumed without risk to the fetus, and they also listed several other FAS risk factors:

  • Poor nutrition during pregnancy
  • Women above 30 years old with a long history of alcohol are more likely to give birth to an infant with FAS
  • Having a child with FAS increases the risk for subsequent children
  • Women whose genetic susceptibility allows them to metabolize alcohol slowly may be at a higher risk

If a child is suspected of having fetal alcohol syndrome, talk to a doctor immediately. Early diagnosis of the disorder may help to reduce issues, such as learning difficulties and behavioral problems.

Symptoms of FAS

Signs and symptoms of FAS may include any combination of physical defects, cognitive disabilities, and inability to function and cope with daily life.

Physical defects may include:

  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Small head circumference and brain size
  • Vision difficulties or hearing problems
  • Deformities of joints, limbs, and fingers
  • Distinguishing facial features, such as small eyes, an abnormally thin upper lip, an upturned nose, and unusually smooth skin between the nose and upper lip

Issues with the brain and central nervous system may include:

  • Poor judgment skills
  • Poor attention and processing information
  • Difficulty remembering things or situations
  • Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving
  • Jitteriness or hyperactivity

Behavioral and social problems may include:

  • Trouble adapting to change
  • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal
  • Problems with behavior and impulse control
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Rapid change of mood

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Like Parnell, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Surgeon General also believe that alcohol is not safe during pregnancy.

According to these agencies, “There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. There is also no known safe time during pregnancy or safe type of alcohol.”

In most babies exposed to alcohol in utero, congenital abnormalities do show up as physical abnormalities. Instead, these children exhibit subtle behavioral and learning problems that are often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) rather than one of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

In a study, which was published by Brain Sciences Journal in 2015, the author examined the potential role of endocannabinoids signaling in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder(11).

The author also found that outcomes of maternal alcohol use during pregnancy on the behavior of children depend on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption as well as the timing of exposure.

“When talking about the prenatal effects of alcohol, we usually think exclusively about the dose, the strength, and the timing of alcohol exposure. Without knowing those genetic and nutritional factors that are critically involved with the way a woman metabolizes alcohol, it is not possible to make any generalizations about a “safe” amount of alcohol during pregnancy. What may be” safe” for one woman may be “devastating” for another woman’s unborn baby.”

—Dr. Kenneth Jones – Co-discoverer ‘Fetal Alcohol Syndrome’ in 1973

Results from a review published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2003, indicated that prenatal alcohol exposure is linked to a characteristic pattern of intellectual disability, particularly in arithmetic and some aspects of attention, such as planning, mental flexibility, and response to feedback(12).

According to the researchers, as children exposed to alcohol grow old, deficits in socio-emotional functions become more apparent, particularly in the areas of judgment and interpersonal skills.

These deficits are severe and have been documented most extensively in children with FAS. However, children prenatally exposed to reduced levels of alcohol often exhibit the same problems.

Conclusion

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) says that over four decades of published research has shown alcohol to be toxic to a developing baby, as it can cause brain damage and congenital malformations.

Based on NOFAS Fact Sheets, an estimated 40,000 newborns each year are affected by FAS or have FASD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is against drinking during pregnancy, saying that, “Evidence-based research has found that drinking even small amounts of alcohol while pregnant can increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, or sudden infant death syndrome.”

Given that FAS causes unrectifiable problems, pregnant women are strongly advised against alcohol consumption.

Medical experts also give similar warnings to pregnant women who may be contemplating using CBD to relieve pregnancy discomforts.

Using CBD and any cannabis products during pregnancy is not recommended due to the given the lack of information on the use of marijuana, its cannabinoids, and CBD oil during pregnancy.


  1. Fish, E.W., Murdaugh, L.B., Zhang, C. et al. Cannabinoids Exacerbate Alcohol Teratogenesis by a CB1-Hedgehog Interaction. Sci Rep 9, 16057 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-52336-w.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Xiong W, Cui T, Cheng K, et al. Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory and neuropathic pain by targeting α3 glycine receptors. J Exp Med. 2012;209(6):1121–1134. doi:10.1084/jem.20120242.
  4. Parker LA, Rock EM, Limebeer CL. Regulation of nausea and vomiting by cannabinoids. Br J Pharmacol. 2011;163(7):1411–1422. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.01176.x.
  5. ACOG Committee Opinion Number 722. October 2017. https://www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Marijuana-Use-During-Pregnancy-and-Lactation?IsMobileSet=false.
  6. Sheryl A. Ryan, Seth D. Ammerman, Mary E. O’Connor. Marijuana Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Implications for Neonatal and Childhood Outcome. Pediatrics September 2018, 142 (3) e20181889; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-1889.
  7. What You Should Know About Using Cannabis, Including CBD, When Pregnant or Breastfeeding. FDA Consumer Updates. Current as of Oct 2019.
  8. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. Marijuana Fact Sheet: What You Need to Know About Marijuana Use and Pregnancy. https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/factsheets/pregnancy.htm#9.
  9. Campolongo P, Trezza V, Ratano P, Palmery M, Cuomo V. Developmental consequences of perinatal cannabis exposure: behavioral and neuroendocrine effects in adult rodents. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2011 Mar;214(1):5-15. doi: 10.1007/s00213-010-1892-x. Epub 2010 Jun 17.
  10. Vorgias D, Bernstein B. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. [Updated 2019 Dec 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448178/.
  11. Basavarajappa BS. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: Potential Role of Endocannabinoids Signaling. Brain Sci. 2015;5(4):456–493. Published 2015 Oct 29. doi:10.3390/brainsci5040456.
  12. Joseph L. Jacobson, Ph.D., and Sandra W. Jacobson, Ph.D. Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Child Development. June 2003. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-4/282-286.htm.
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