The right side of the heart pumps deoxygenated blood from the body to the lungs, where it can fill up with oxygen, and then the left side of the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the rest of the body. So, blood travels from the body to the right side of the heart to the lungs to the left side of the heart and back to the body.
But what happens in the womb? Fetuses’ lungs don’t work because they’re filled with fluid. How does the heart bypass the lungs and spread the oxygen-rich blood coming in through the umbilical cord to the rest of the body? Before we’re born, we have an extra blood vessel—the ductus arteriosus—that directly connects the right side of the heart with the left side of the heart, bypassing the fluid-filled lungs. When the baby is born and takes a first breath, this blood vessel closes. In about 1 in 10,000 births, though, the blood vessel closes prematurely before the baby is born, necessitating an emergency C-section.
Most cases for which there’s a known cause are thought to be related to taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. This is because the way the body keeps this blood vessel open is with a class of inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins. If you take an anti-inflammatory drug, you can undermine your body’s ability to keep it open, and it could constrict closed prematurely. That’s why most authorities recommend that these nonsteroidalanti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) be avoided in the third trimester. The likelihood that anything bad will happen is extremely remote, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Sometimes this premature constriction happens even when women are not taking drugs, so called “idiopathic” cases, which is doctorspeak for “we have no idea what causes it.” If anti-inflammatory drugs can cause it, though, what about anti-inflammatory foods? A few years ago, in my video Chamomile Tea May Not Be Safe During Pregnancy, I profiled two incidents apparently caused by pregnant women drinking chamomile tea. One of which reversed in that the ductus opened right back up once the tea was stopped, but, in the other case, the other baby had to come right out. Since then, there have been other case reports of this occurring—for example, when a woman had been drinking a few ounces of an acai berry drink every day and when another woman had been drinking prune juice and a violet vegetable juice containing a blend of fruits and veggies. Pregnant women should, therefore, take special care when consuming lots of these powerful anti-inflammatory berry nutrients.
What about berries themselves, green tea and all the other wonderful anti-inflammatory foods and beverages out there? A group of researchers in Brazil compared ultrasounds of the hearts of third-trimester babies whose moms ate a lot of these anti-inflammatory foods with those whose moms ate less, and they could tell a difference. The speed of blood through the ductus in the moms consuming the anti-inflammatory diet was higher, suggesting it was narrower, just like when you pinch the opening of a hose closed and can make water shoot out faster. Also, the right sides of the hearts of the babies whose moms were consuming the anti-inflammatory diet were larger than their left sides, suggesting some blood backup, again an indicator of a tighter ductus.
The researchers suggested changes in late pregnancy diets may be warranted, but critics replied that the differences they noted might not have any clinical relevance, meaning it may not matter if the vessel is a little more open or closed. We don’t want to alarm women because many of these anti-inflammatory foods may be beneficial—such as cranberries, which may be useful in preventing urinary tract infections, which can be a risk factor for premature birth. Consuming cranberries is attractive from a public health and cost standpoint if it can prevent some premature births.
Before cutting down on a healthy food such as cranberries, we’d want some stronger evidence that they’re potentially harmful. What about confounding factors? For example, women who ate lots of anti-inflammatory foods might have had other characteristics that could affect fetal blood flow. What we needed was an interventional trial in which pregnant women change their diets and see what happens, but we didn’t have such studies–until now.
A study has shown that cutting back on anti-inflammatory foods such as tea, coffee, dark chocolate, grapes, and citrus for a few weeks during the third trimester did indeed seem to open up the ductus during normal pregnancies. In women whose fetuses had abnormally constricted vessels, a few weeks of eliminating polyphenol-rich foods reversed the ductal constriction in 96 percent of cases. Importantly, researchers didn’t follow these babies after birth to see if it made any difference. That complete closure only happens in 1 in 10,000 births; we’re not sure what effects relative levels of constriction may have, so it’s too early to be instituting a ban on dark chocolate for pregnant women.
At this stage, what we’re left with is a note of caution. During the rest of your life, I recommend eating healthy foods such as berries and cocoa powder, but from about 28 weeks until birth, pregnant women may want cut back until we know more.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016:How Not to Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.