Pregnancy in the Stone Age – Can We Learn Anything?

The woman who got pregnant in the Stone Age faced enormous risks compared to today’s expectant mothers. There was no way to control bleeding or infection; Caesarean section was not an option. Until we dig a little deeper, our survival as a species seems remarkable.

The outcome of pregnancy depends on the mother’s underlying health, her nutrition before and during pregnancy, and the threat of infection. In all these areas, the woman of 50,000 years ago was better off than her present counterpart. How is this possible in an age without sanitation, medical care, and disease prevention?

Better nutrition, better pregnancy

The primitive woman’s diet was less likely to be deficient in essential nutrients than that of today’s teenage girls. (Ref 1) A study from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center confirmed previous reports of adolescent and adult pregnant women getting too little iron, zinc, folate, and vitamin E.

A woman who begins a pregnancy without adequate calcium, vitamin D, and other bone-building nutrients is at increased risk of developing osteoporosis in middle age. But this is not the end of the story. Her baby may also be at greater risk of fracture in the future. Midlife osteoporosis is at least partially programmed before birth, especially if the mother smokes and has little physical activity. (Ref 2, 3, 4)

Most laypersons believe that the Stone Age were hearty meat eaters. Anthropologists know that this is not so. They lived on a predominantly meat-based diet for only about 100,000 years, from the time Homo sapiens developed keen hunting skills until the advent of farming. Before then, meat came from carrion and small game. The bulk of their calories came from vegetables, fruits, roots and nuts.

Plant foods contain everything a pregnant woman needs, including vitamins, antioxidants, protein and minerals. Modern vegetarians are often deficient in vitamin B12, but the deliberate or accidental inclusion of small game, bird eggs, and insects in the Stone Age diet provided ample of this critical nutrient.

Folic acid deficiency in early pregnancy leads to defective formation of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. These abnormalities are much less likely in infants of mothers who get enough folate, at least 400 micrograms per day. So few women eat enough green leafy vegetables to raise their folate levels that the U.S. government requires bakery manufacturers to add it to their products.

Obstetricians have been prescribing multivitamins to their pregnant patients for decades, but studies have only recently confirmed the wisdom of this practice. In 2002, the American Medical Association reversed a long-held position and recommended that everyone without exception needs a multivitamin/multimineral preparation every day to avoid the subtle but health-damaging deficiencies of these nutrients. Taking a multivitamin reduces the risk of birth defects in the newborn, especially those involving the heart. Preeclampsia is a serious, sometimes fatal complication of pregnancy. Women with low intakes of vitamins C and E are three times more likely to develop this condition. (Ref. 5, 6)

Would these early Stone Agers, mostly vegetarians, suffer from iron deficiency? Not likely. Their diet was rich in iron and vitamin C, which facilitates iron absorption. Under these circumstances, iron deficiency would be rare. Cereal grains inhibit iron absorption, which basically explains why iron deficiency is common in grain-based populations. However, one of the main reasons Stone Age women were less likely to be iron deficient is because they didn’t have as many menstrual cycles as modern women do.

The onset of menses in a primitive society is about 5 years later than in young American women. Modern hunter-gatherers, like the earliest Stone Ages, are either pregnant or nursing for most of their childbearing years, and menstruate only a few times between weaning one child and conceiving another. In these groups, breastfeeding suppresses ovulation because it is literally optional, meaning every few minutes, even during the night. For the modern nursing mother, that means on demand, usually no more than once every few hours and perhaps once or twice a night after the third or fourth month. Thus, despite breastfeeding, menstruation returns and monthly blood loss continues.

fish brain connection

About 150,000 years ago, our ancestors discovered seafood. The increased intake of fatty acids in fish and shellfish initiated major advances in brain size and complexity that allowed humans to progress faster in the next 100,000 years than in the previous million. Tremendous gains followed in tool making and the development of language and group communication.

The human brain is mostly made up of water, but the solid part is mostly fat. The body cannot produce omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which form a large part of the structure of the brain and eye, so we need them in our diet. A maternal deficiency of these nutrients, especially omega-3s, prevents the newborn’s brain and eyes from reaching their full potential. The best source of omega-3 fats is fish; Nuts and green leafy vegetables are also good sources.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in every cell of the body. They allow the efficient flow of nutrients, regulate nerve impulses and keep inflammation in the right balance. A proper diet has equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. This allows the immune system to fight infection; this is a real threat that people faced from the Stone Age to the age of antibiotics, 70 years ago.

The advantage to the baby of a diet rich in omega-3 fats is clear, but mothers also need it. Nature protects the unborn baby by taking advantage of the mother’s stores of omega-3 fats. A woman with a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids during the months and years before pregnancy will develop her own deficiency. If omega-3 intake remains low, this will worsen in subsequent pregnancies. Postpartum depression affects about 10 percent of women after giving birth and is associated with a deficiency of omega-3 fats. (Ref 7, 8)

The newest epidemic

There is one complication of pregnancy that never occurred in the Stone Age: type 2 diabetes. No disease has risen so quickly in modern times. It has increased several times since the 1950s; It increased 61 percent between 1990 and 2001. Gestational diabetes patients (Ref. 9) are people who do not have fully developed disease yet but cannot properly process blood sugar (glucose) during pregnancy. About half will develop overt diabetes in the years following their baby’s birth.

Most of us know type 2 diabetes, once called adult-onset diabetes, as the disease our grandparents developed in later years. It is no longer uncommon to find it in adolescents, even primary school students. Finding that it is no longer uncommon in obstetric practice, as the younger generation enters, alarmed doctors—but not surprised.

How can we be so sure that the pregnant Stone Age did not have diabetes? It is a lifestyle disease with three main associations: low levels of physical activity, a diet high in refined grains and sugars, and obesity. These conditions did not occur during the Stone Age. Their lifestyle required a lot of effort. Grains of any kind were not part of their diet as it required tools and controlled heat. There was no sugar as far as we knew, and honey was an occasional lucky find. Obesity would not exist as it does among the planet’s dwindling hunter-gatherer populations today.

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 kept germs away

Common wisdom states that Stone Age people were an infection-ridden group, but this is not true. They had strong immune systems due to high levels of physical activity and a highly varied diet. Between the protective antibodies a mother passed through the placenta and the antibodies she gave her newborn through breast milk, Stone Age babies had more protection against today’s germs than modern babies.

When people live in small, isolated groups, as in the Stone Age, STDs do not spread very far or very quickly. Today’s pregnant woman is more than 50 percent likely to have at least one of these infections (Ref. 10). The effect on infants can be severe; some die, some suffer brain damage.

Election and its consequences

Tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs produced a generation of babies with problems that Stone Age babies never faced. Babies of mothers who smoke are smaller than normal and their brain development may be compromised. Maternal use of alcohol or cocaine during pregnancy can cause growth retardation, congenital defects, and other serious problems.

None of us would want to live in a Stone Age world if we had the choice, but we have neutralized the almost miraculous medical advances of the last century. We 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 complications of pregnancy.

The lessons we can learn from the Stone Age are not subtle, obscure, or beyond our capacity to imitate them. By making better choices for our children and ourselves, we can produce the healthiest generation ever.

Philip J. Goscienski is the author of MD Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him via his website at http://www.stoneagedoc.com.

References

1. Giddens JB et al., Pregnant adolescent and adult women have similarly low selected nutrient intakes, J Am Diet Assoc 2000;100:1334-1340

2 Cooper C et al., Review: Developmental origins of osteoporotic fracture, 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., Intrauterine programming of bone. Part I: Altering the osteogenic environment, Osteoporos Int 2008 Feb;19(2):147-56

5 Keen CL et al., Micronutrient Deficiencies as a Significant Contributing Factor in the Occurrence of Pregnancy Complications, Am Soc Nutr Sciences J Nutr 2003 May;133:1597S-1605S

6 Bodnar LM et al., Periconceptional multivitamin use reduces preeclampsia risk, Am J Epidemiol 2006 Sep 1;164(5):470-7

7 Freeman MP, Omega-3 fatty acids and perinatal depression: literature review and recommendations for future research, Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2006 Oct-November;75(4-5):291-7

8 Kendall-Tackett K, A new paradigm for depression in new mothers: the central role of inflammation and how breastfeeding and anti-inflammatory treatments protect maternal mental health, Int Breastfeeding J 2007;2:6

9 Greene MF and Solomon CG, Gestational Diabetes Mellitus – Time to Treat, N Engl J Med 2005 16 June; 352(24):2544-46

10 Baseman JG and Koutsky LA, Epidemiology of human papillomavirus infections, J Clin Virol 2005 Mar;32 Supple 1:S16-24

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