Q. I have read that some medications or drugs can cause birth defects. Can you give me an example?

A. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the drug Thalidomide was prescribed quite commonly to help moderate symptoms of morning sickness. Eventually it was discovered that even one dose of Thalidomide taken early in pregnancyor even several weeks prior to a woman becoming pregnant—could cause devastating birth defects. Most particularly, the birth defect tended to result in shortened arms and legs, often with no elbows or knees. That’s one example of how a drug or medication can impact fetal development. Thalidomide is still used, mainly as a treatment for certain cancers (like multiple myeloma) and for a complication of leprosy. Which means that if a woman doesn’t know about this history and takes the drug just before getting pregnant or early in the pregnancy, the fetus may be affected.

It is often said that humans are a combination of nature and nurture: nature involves genetics, the chromosomes and genes inherited from your biological parents. Nurture involves epigenetics, everything that is NOT genetics. That of course includes drugs or medications. Epigenetics includes signals from your internal and external environments. That information is transmitted to your cells. Signals from your lifestyleincluding what you eat, drink, or ingestimpact how the “blueprints” housed in your genes are interpreted and how the 3-dimensional protein-building blocks of life are assembled.