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An Alarming Number of Pregnant Women Are Getting High to Dodge Morning Sickness

Photograph by Twenty20

One of the most common side effects of pregnancy is nausea and vomiting, commonly known as morning sickness. Although most cases are relatively harmless and easy to treat, some women experience more severe symptoms, which can lead to hyperemesis gravidarum—a condition that causes weight loss and electrolyte disturbance.

In either case, spending your day dodging toilet seats and feeling nauseous makes for an unpleasant afternoon, but what is an expectant mother to do when doctor-recommended remedies (avoiding dehydration, eating crackers, sniffing ginger, etc.) don’t work?

Turns out, more and more pregnant women are turning their backs on national guidelines and self-medicating with marijuana, despite warnings of impaired fetal brain development, according to a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Though previous studies suggest that marijuana use among pregnant women is on the rise, Kaiser Permanente reports that “little is known about what has contributed to these increases.”

To answer this question, researchers from the group examined more than 220,000 pregnancies in Northern California and found that “women with severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy had nearly four times greater odds of prenatal marijuana use” than those without.

Women with severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy had nearly four times greater odds of prenatal marijuana use.

“This is the largest study to date of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy and prenatal marijuana use,” said the study’s lead author, Kelly Young-Wolff, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research in Northern California. “Our findings add important evidence to a small but growing body of research suggesting that some pregnant women may use marijuana to self-medicate morning sickness.”

During the study, women were asked to complete a self-reported substance use questionnaire and submit a urine toxicology test during the first trimester. Based on data collected, 2.3 percent of the women participating in the study reported having severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy—11.3 percent of which said they used marijuana to self-medicate.

Another 15.3 percent of the group described their symptoms as being mild. Of those, 8.4 percent also admit to using marijuana during pregnancy. And then there were the others, the 4.5 percent of women who confessed to using marijuana while pregnant even though they had no symptoms whatsoever.

Though results from this study are consistent with Kaiser’s initial theory—that more women are using marijuana to treat nausea and vomiting during pregnancy—the medical group reports that they “cannot rule out other possible explanations, such as whether marijuana use contributes to nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, or whether clinicians diagnose nausea and vomiting in pregnancy more frequently among women who report using marijuana to treat it.”

Still, many believe that the study will have long-term benefits, especially when it comes to preventative screening.

“We hope our study can help alert clinicians to the fact that women with nausea and vomiting in pregnancy are more likely to use marijuana,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Nancy Goler, a Kaiser Permanente OB-GYN in Northern California and associate executive director for the Permanente Medical Group. “Pregnant women need to be screened and given the information about the possible negative effects, while also receiving medically recommended treatment options.”

The group hopes to revisit this study again in the future to determine whether trends in prenatal marijuana use change with legalization for recreational use, and the health effects of prenatal marijuana exposure.

In related news, another study just released by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine claims that marijuana can be found in breast milk for up to six days after use.

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