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Pregnancy In The Stone Age – Can We Learn Something?
A woman who became pregnant in the Stone Age faced enormous risks compared to mothers today. There was no way to control bleeding or infection; Cesarean operation was not an option. The fact that we’ve survived as a species seems remarkable—until you dig a little deeper.
Pregnancy outcomes depend on the mother’s underlying health, nutrition before and during pregnancy, and infection threats. In all these respects the woman of 50,000 years ago was better than her counterpart today. How is this possible in an age when there was no plumbing, no medical care and no protection from infectious diseases?
Good diet, good pregnancy
Primitive women’s diets were less deficient in important nutrients than those of young women today. (Ref 1) A study by the University of Cincinnati Medical Center confirmed earlier reports that adolescent and adult pregnant women had very low intakes of iron, zinc, folate, and vitamin E.
A woman who begins pregnancy without enough calcium, vitamin D and other bone-building nutrients has an increased risk of developing osteoporosis in middle age. But that is not the end of the story. Her baby may also be at increased risk of fractures in the future. Middle-aged osteoporosis is at least partially programmed before birth, especially if the mother smokes and does little physical activity. (Refs 2, 3, 4)
Most laypersons believe that the Stone Agers were hearty meat eaters. Anthropologists know that this is not the case. They lived on a predominantly meat diet for about 100,000 years, from which time Homo sapiens developed keen hunting skills until the advent of agriculture. Before that time meat came from carrion and small game. The majority of their calories come from vegetables, fruits, roots and nuts.
Plant foods contain everything a pregnant woman needs, including vitamins, antioxidants, proteins and minerals. Modern vegetarians are often deficient in vitamin B12, but the intentional or accidental inclusion of small game, bird eggs, and insects in Stone Age diets provided more than enough of that important nutrient.
Folic acid deficiency early in pregnancy leads to malformation of the baby’s brain and spine. Babies of mothers who get enough folate, at least 400 micrograms per day, are much less likely to have these abnormalities. Because so few women eat enough green leafy vegetables to increase their folate levels, the U.S. government wants baked goods manufacturers to add it to their products.
Obstetricians have been prescribing multivitamins for their pregnant patients for decades, but only in recent years have studies confirmed the wisdom of that practice. In 2002 the American Medical Association reversed the long-standing position and recommended that everyone, without exception, need a daily multivitamin/multimineral preparation to avoid subtle but health-damaging inadequacies in these nutrients. Taking a multivitamin reduces the risk of birth defects in newborns, especially those involving the heart. Preeclampsia is a serious, sometimes fatal, complication of pregnancy. Women with low intakes of vitamins C and E have three times the risk of this condition. (Refs 5, 6)
Did these mostly vegetarian early Stone Agers become iron deficient? Nothing like that. Their diet was rich in iron as well as vitamin C which facilitates iron absorption. Iron deficiency would have been rare under these conditions. Cereal grains interfere with iron absorption, which explains why iron deficiency is common in societies that primarily subsist on grains. However, one of the main reasons Stone Age women were less likely to be iron deficient is that they did not have nearly as many menstrual cycles as modern women.
Menarche in a primitive society started about 5 years later than American girls. Modern hunter-gatherers, like the earliest Stone Ages, are either pregnant or lactating for most of their offspring and menstruate only a few times between weaning one offspring and another. Breastfeeding suppresses ovulation in these groups because it is literally on demand, ie every few minutes, even throughout the night. For a modern breastfeeding mother, demand often means no more often than every two hours, and perhaps once or twice a night after the third or fourth month. Thus menstruation returns and menstrual bleeding continues despite breastfeeding.
The fish-brain connection
About 150,000 years ago our ancestors discovered seafood. The increased amount of fatty acids in fish and shellfish triggered great advances in brain size and complexity that allowed humans to evolve more rapidly over the next 100,000 years than they had in the previous million. Great gains in tool making and the development of language and group communication followed.
The human brain is made up mostly of water but the solid part is mostly fat. The body cannot make the omega-3 and omega-6 fats that make up so much of the brain and eye structure, so we need them in our diet. Maternal deficiencies of these nutrients, especially omega-3s, prevent the newborn’s brain and eyes from reaching their full potential. The best source of omega-3 fats is fish; Nuts and leafy green vegetables are also good sources.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in every cell in the body. They allow efficient flow of nutrients, regulate nerve impulses and keep inflammation in proper balance. The right foods contain equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. This allows the immune system to fight infection, a real threat that humans have faced since the Stone Age until the age of antibiotics, just 70 years ago.
The benefits of a diet rich in omega-3 fats for babies are obvious, but mothers need them too. Nature protects the unborn child by tapping into the mother’s store of omega-3 fats. A woman who has low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the months and years before pregnancy develops a deficiency of her own. It worsens with subsequent pregnancies if her omega-3 intake is low. Postpartum depression affects about 10 percent of women after childbirth and is linked to a lack of omega-3 fats. (Refs 7, 8)
A new epidemic
Pregnancy has a complication that never happened in the Stone Age: type 2 diabetes. No disease has grown so rapidly in modern times. It has increased severalfold since the 1950s; Between 1990 and 2001, it increased by 61 percent. Gestational diabetes (ref. 9) is someone who has not yet developed the disease but cannot process blood sugar (glucose) properly during pregnancy. About half of them will develop overt diabetes in the years after their baby is born.
Most of us know type 2 diabetes, once referred to as adult-onset diabetes, as the disease our grandparents developed in their later years. It is no longer uncommon to find it among teenagers, and even grade-schoolers. As it sinks into the younger generation, it’s alarmed — but not surprising — that doctors are discovering it’s no longer rare in obstetric practice.
How can we be sure that the pregnant Stone Age did not have diabetes? It is a lifestyle disease with three main correlates: low levels of physical activity, a diet high in refined grains and carbohydrates, and obesity. These conditions did not occur in the Stone Age. Their lifestyle demands hard work. No type of grain was part of their diet because they required equipment and controlled heat. Sugar as we know it simply did not exist and honey was a lucky find. Obesity would have been non-existent, as it is today among the planet’s dwindling population of hunter-gatherers.
Diabetic mothers have more pregnancy complications than normal women. Their babies are 5 times more likely to die and 3 times more likely to be born with various organ abnormalities.
They keep germs at bay
Common knowledge says that Stone Age people were prone to infections but that simply isn’t true. They had strong immune systems due to high levels of physical activity and a remarkably varied diet. Between the protective antibodies that a mother carries across the placenta and those she passes on to her newborn through breast milk, Stone Age babies had more protection against today’s germs than modern babies.
Sexually transmitted diseases did not spread as widely or as rapidly during the Stone Age when humans lived in small isolated bands. A pregnant woman today has a greater than 50 percent chance of developing at least one of these infections (Ref. 10). Effects on children can be severe; Some will die, some will have brain damage.
Choices and Consequences
Tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs have put a generation of children in trouble that Stone Age children never faced. Mothers who smoke have babies who are smaller than ideal and whose brain development may be compromised. Maternal alcohol or cocaine use during pregnancy can cause growth retardation, birth defects, and other serious problems.
Given a choice, none of us would want to live in a stone-age world but we have neutralized the almost miraculous medical advances of the last century. We have allowed our girls to be less physically active and live on a marginal diet. If we could reverse these two factors alone, there would be a dramatic reduction in prematurity and other pregnancy complications.
The lessons we can learn from the Stone Age are not subtle, obscure, or beyond our ability to imitate. We can create the healthiest generation possible by making better choices for our children and ourselves.
Philip J. Gosienski, MD is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him through his web site at http://www.stoneagedoc.com.
1. Giddens JB et al., Pregnant adolescents and adult women alike have low intakes of selected nutrients, J Am Diet Assoc 2000;100:1334-1340.
2 Cooper C et al., Review: developmental origins of osteoporotic fractures, Osteoporosis Int 2006; 17(3):337-47
3 Prentice A et al., Nutrition and bone growth and development, Proc Nutr Soc 2006 Nov;65(4):348-60
4 Lanham SA et al., Endogenous programming of bone. Part I: Alteration of the osteogenic environment, Osteoporos Int 2008 Feb;19(2):147-56.
5 Keen CL et al., Availability of micronutrient deficiencies is a significant contributing factor to the incidence of pregnancy complications, Am Soc Nutr Sciences J Nutr 2003 May;133:1597S-1605S.
6 Bodner LM et al., Periconceptional multivitamin use reduces risk of preeclampsia, Am J Epidemiol 2006 Sep 1;164(5):470-7.
7 Freeman MP, Omega-3 fatty acids and perinatal depression: a review of the literature and recommendations for future research, Prostaglandins Leukot Ecent Fatty Acids 2006 Oct-Nov; 75(4-5):291-7
8 Kendall-Tackett K, A new paradigm for new maternal depression: the central role of inflammation and how breastfeeding and anti-inflammatory treatments protect maternal mental health, Int Breastfeed J 2007; 2:6
9 Green MF and Solomon CG, Gestational diabetes mellitus – time to treat, N Engl J Med 2005 Jun 16; 352(24):2544-46
10 Baseman JG and Kautsky LA, Epidemiology of human papillomavirus infection, J Clin Virol 2005 Mar; 32 Suppl 1: S16-24
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