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Is Climate Change a Cause of Premature Birth?

By Chris D. Meletis, N.D.

For a long time now, we’ve known that there’s a link between the environment and fertility – or more specifically toxic substances that have been released into the environment harm fertility. Pesticides, herbicides, toxic compounds in plastics, air pollution, and other substances can impact sperm health, the ovaries, and other aspects of conceiving and raising a healthy baby. Now, researchers are beginning to look into whether climate change can be added to the list of things that affect fertility.

Recent studies have investigated the possible connection between climate change and the ability to carry a baby to term.

What Is Climate Change?

Climate change is the warming of our planet, leading to the increase in average global temperatures. This has led to the frequency of severe weather events such as heatwaves and heavy storms.

Climate Change as a Cause of Preterm Birth

Two studies found that exposure to high ambient air temperatures during pregnancy can lead to the premature birth of babies.

The first study investigated the effect of high temperatures on nearly one million pregnant women in New South Wales, Australia.1 The researchers found that the pregnant women who were exposed to above average temperatures experienced an increased risk of premature birth compared to women exposed to average temperatures. The women who lived in the hottest regions in the week before giving birth had a 16% higher risk of having a premature baby.

According to the study, pregnant women who had diabetes, hypertension, and chronic illness or who smoked during pregnancy were especially vulnerable to the effects of heat. They had a slightly greater risk of premature birth after exposure to high temperatures compared to women who didn’t have any of these conditions and who didn’t smoke.

In the second study, premature births occurred 15% more often following extremely hot days.2 During heatwaves, preterm births also happened more often earlier in pregnancy and in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Heatwaves and Rapid Weight Gain in Babies

Above normal temperatures pose risk even after a baby is born. A new study of infants born in Israel found that babies exposed to high temperatures after birth had a higher risk of rapid weight gain.3 Gaining weight as a baby is linked to obesity as a child and later in life.

Researchers attribute the rapid weight gain to the fact that when the air temperature is higher, the body burns less fat in order to maintain an ideal temperature.

What Pregnant Women Can Do During a Heatwave

Frankly speaking, these studies are a bit scary, but the good news is that there are several steps that soon to be pregnant, pregnant, and post birthing women can take to protect themselves and their baby:

  • It’s important to stay in a cool, air-conditioned place when you’re pregnant. Limit your time outdoors to the morning hours before it gets too hot.
  • Taking a good prenatal multivitamin that contains vitamin D is crucial if you’re not spending time outdoors to get your vitamin D from sunlight.
  • Drinking lots of fluids is also important.

Keeping these strategies in mind can lead to a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby even when it’s scorching hot outside.

About Dr. Meletis

Dr. Chris MeletisDr. Meletis is an internationally recognized naturopathic physician, an accomplished author, and respected educator in the field of natural medicine. Dr. Meletis was honored as a ‘Naturopathic Physician of the Year’ by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians for his commitment to education and helping those in need. His mission is simply, “changing the world’s health, one person at a time”.

He has authored 14 books on subjects ranging from natural medicine interactions to fertility enhancement and has published over 80 articles in publications such as Natural Health and Natural Pharmacy. Dr. Meletis has served as the Dean of Naturopathic Medicine and Chief Medical Officer for the National College of Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM) for seven years and later as the school’s Senior Science Officer. He sits on several medical advisory boards and has worked with Oregon Health and Science University on a grant from the National Institute of Health to further educate MD graduates on natural medicine.

References:

  1. Jegasothy E, Randall DA, Ford JB, Nippita TA, Morgan GG. Maternal factors and risk of spontaneous preterm birth due to high ambient temperatures in New South Wales, Australia. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2022;36(1):4-12.
  2. Cushing L, Morello-Frosch R, Hubbard A. Extreme heat and its association with social disparities in the risk of spontaneous preterm birth. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2022;36(1):13-22.
  3. Dionicio López CF, Alterman N, Calderon-Margalit R, Hauzer M, Kloog I, Raz R. Postnatal exposure to ambient temperature and rapid weight gain among infants delivered at term gestations: a population-based cohort study. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2022;36(1):26-35.
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