Smoking During Pregnancy Ups Bipolar Risk in Children

Smoking During Pregnancy Ups Bipolar Risk in Children

It’s nothing new to hear that smoking is bad for you, or that smoking during pregnancy is harmful to your baby. But here’s an unexpected twist: Mothers-to-be who smoke while pregnant could also be doing damage to their child’s mental health. According to research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, prenatal smoking could increase your child’s chance of developing bipolar disorder later in life. 

Related: Learn more about the risks of smoking during pregnancy.

For the study, researchers at New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University looked at 79 adults with bipolar disorder and a control group of 654 people without the condition. They found that those born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy had a two-fold increased risk of developing bipolar disorder as adults, compared to those whose mothers didn’t smoke.

While the study can’t prove that smoking during pregnancy causes bipolar disorder, the findings suggest that certain controllable environmental factors may play a role. In addition to prenatal smoking, the same research team found that bipolar was four times as common among people whose mothers got the flu during pregnancy. But scientists are still trying to pinpoint the exact causes, and the National Institute of Mental Health notes that it’s likely that many factors act together to produce the illness.

Related: How to talk to your family about bipolar disorder.  

While there’s still much left to learn about what causes bipolar disorder, this is what doctors do know:

  • Genetics play a role. Experts know that bipolar tends to run in families, so you’re more likely to develop the condition if a parent or sibling has it. In fact, 80-90% of people with the illness has a family member who does also. Research is also discovering that bipolar disorder shares genetic traits with other mental illness like schizophrenia.
  • Brain chemistry is a factor. Researchers believe that bipolar disorder could be caused in part by an imbalance in the brain chemicals norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. People with hormone imbalances are also more susceptible to developing the disorder.
  • Environmental factors affect diagnosis. Stressful life events, physical or emotional trauma, drug and alcohol abuse and chronic sleep deprivation have all been shown to trigger manic or depressive episodes.

Beyond the cause
Because there’s no one known cause of bipolar disorder, there’s also no surefire way to prevent it. That makes recognizing and learning to manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder critical. These tips can help:

  • Get a proper diagnosis. Because bipolar disorder is such a multi-faceted condition—one that affects each afflicted person differently—the diagnosis can sometimes take years. Be candid with your doctors and healthcare professionals about all the symptoms you’re experiencing. Proper diagnosis is the most critical part of treatment.
  • Follow your treatment and medication plans. Bipolar disorder affects all facets of life—work, school, and relationships. Sticking to your treatment plan, and taking your medications as prescribed can help reduce those negative effects.
  • Take care of yourself outside the doctor’s office. Getting enough sleep, eating well and staying active are also important facets of managing bipolar disorder, and can make a big difference in your quality of life.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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