Epigenetics and Prenatal Development

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As I continue to seek out and read books about prenatal development and epigenetics ( in my words, a study of how genes get turned on and off without changing DNA during intra-uterine development), I am more and more amazed at how much we don’t know, our mothers didn’t know, and many doctors, who refuse to educate themselves, don’t know.

And in this case what we don’t know CAN hurt us and our babies.

My current read is Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul, a scientific writer who set out to educate herself as she embarked on her second pregnancy.
I’m only on chapter 2, but it goes along the same lines Dr Verny followed in his Pre-Parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception.

Right now, I am reading about nutrition and how it affects the expression of genes and level of hormones. It’s actually not new to me. I read about it in my favorite pre-conception book Get Ready to Get Pregnant: Your Complete Prepregnancy Guide to Making a Smart and Healthy Baby.
It was a new concept to me at the time, that what we eat and how we eat can “program” the fetus by “turning the genes on and off”, but it turns out it’s not that uncommon of a concept in the scientific world. It’s just our real world is pretty slow to jump on the bang wagon ( as it has always been with any medical breakthrough that challenges the previous notions).

For those who are curious, just a quick example in short:

Nature made it so that the intrauterine environment “lets” the baby know of the world outside of us via hormones and a few other processes.
For example, if a mother is constantly stressed and the released cortisol crosses the placenta, the baby’s brain will be programmed for the flight-or-fight response, taking from it the fact that in the outside world, the baby will need to be quick and vigilant. The baby will come out of the womb ready for the environment that was “pre-programmed” into him, fast and unable to focus, possibly even predisposed to aggression. That’s how evolution helped our ancestors survive.
By eating lots of sugar and simple carbs that send our insulin skyrocketing (and doing it all the time), we’re “teaching” our unborn baby to become insulin resistant, so in the future he/she might have troubles keeping weight off (apparently, insulin also controls how our body stores fat). The same happens with leptin, the substance that tells us when we are full. I don’t remember the exact mechanism by which leptin resistance occurs in a unborn baby ( i think it was somehow connected with insulin as well), but it creates a human being who is unable to know when to stop eating.

On another hand, {i read in the new book} it turns out that low birth weight babies (due to malnutrition specifically, I don’t think that other reasons, like preterm birth, were included in that) suffer from the same problems as  babies born with insulin resistance- diabetes, obesity, heart disease. At first glance, it’s surprising, but before I even read the explanation for why it happens, it made perfect sense to me:

When the baby doesn’t receive enough nutrients, it learns to live on little, his body being “programmed” that food out in the real world is scare. However, when he’s born into the world of excess and processed foods, his body can’t handle it properly, having been “taught” to store every single nutrient received (kind of in the same way the fad starvation diets never work long term). I guess the effects were the worst for babies who were malnutritioned during the 2nd and 3rd trimester.
What baffled me, though, was why the heart disease? What would this have to do with the heart? The explanation was the following: by receiving few nutrients, the fetus “sends” them to the most important organ in our body, our brain, leaving other organs short of necessary food. That, later in life, came back to bite him. In addition, inability to properly control and process high fat, processed diets helped that too.  They did a study on the survivors of one winter during World War II, during which food was so scarce that most people had to live on 500 calories a day ( including pregnant women), and a tremendous amount of survivors born or conceived during that winter were obese,with diabetes and heart disease, compared to babies born during other times. Here the effects were stronger, if malnutrition happened during the first trimester, when the heart was developing {which isn’t really fair, because of morning sickness which is something that our body does to us)

There’s an amazing amount of information and studies brought up in all three books I mentioned, it’d be impossible to relay every single detail of even one example here. It’s definitely fascinating and opened my eyes on many things. Even if you’re sceptical, I’d recommend you read it, because the examples and studies brought up in the books are pretty convincing.

Either way, as I go through this, I find it slightly difficult to find a happy middle. Everywhere we turn there another advisory about what is good or bad during pregnancy. It seems like everything can influence the baby. Omegas-3s in fish are great for the brain and produces higher IQ scores, but at the same time, fish is high in mercury, exposure to which produces low IQ scores. It’s like we can’t do anything right. {btw, my personal answer to the fish dilemma are sardines- small fish that doesn’t accumulate much mercury at all and one of the best fatty fishes for Omega-3s. Canned sardines are tasty, safe and very nutritious}.

My personal dilemma has been Vitamin E. When I was preparing for pregnancy, I found one Prenatal Vitamins brand that fit what I wanted,which  was “no vitamin or mineral could exceed 100% of daily value” ( it’s amazing how many prenatal vitamins have mega doses). I was very happy about it, until I showed it to my OB, who liked it a lot too, until he saw vitamin E content- 100% of DV. Then he informed me that there have been studies that linked vitamin E consumption to heart defects. So he prescribed me a formula that had 50% of vitamin E. After I got home, I jumped online to try and research those claims. I did, in fact, find plenty of articles citing several studies in which vitamin E consumption before pregnancy and during pregnancy of as little as 2/3 of Daily Value was linked with 9 fold increased risk of heart defect.
Obviously, supplementing vitamin E was not something I wanted to do ( considering I was already eating at the point where I received everything at at least 100% from food). Vitamin E can be found in oil, nuts, but the truth is I don’t really consume oil, or products that contain oil ( processed foods), and I am not a fan of nuts ( though I do take them for their nutritional benefit).

For a bit, i wondered whether that increased risk was connected more with consumption of fatty, oily foods, rather than actual vitamin E. But of course I can’t completely discount the study based on a hunch. So I don’t supplement E, but I don’t really get much E from diet. I’m between a rock and a hard place. Hubby and I decided that we’d curb vitamin E consumption pre-pregnancy and during the 1st trimester when the heart is developing, and then ease up on that in the 2nd trimester. But I still feel uneasy about the whole situation….

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  • Reply
    May 31, 2011 at 5:50 PM

    Very interesting! Thanks for all the great info!

  • Reply
    Elena C.
    June 1, 2011 at 7:04 AM

    Very interesting and highly informative post! 🙂

  • Reply
    June 9, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    Just to note, on the flipside with any research study, it is truly impossible to separate what traits come from Nature vs. what comes from nurture. Just because a study suggests a connection between pregnant mothers who eat a lot of sugar during pregnancy and obesity or insulin resistance doesn’t mean that those traits come directly from what you do while pregnant. It is entirely possible and plausible that a person who eats a lot of sugary snacks while pregnant also eats a lot of sugary snacks when not pregnant and therefore “teaches” whether directly or indirectly, her child to have the same kind of eating habits. Difficult to negotiate which really is the root cause of a child’s health issues.

    I feel like you are putting a lot of stock in all of this information. I can only imagine how stressed you are about every decision regarding food. Relax, and enjoy being pregnant.

    • Reply
      Elena @ Art of Making a Baby
      June 9, 2011 at 9:12 AM

      Yes you’re right, genetics and upbringing plays a big part too. But what these studies also say is that everything we do CAN influence our unborn child. For some it might be stressful, to me however it feels good to have the information and do my best to do things right. It helps that what they are suggesting should be done whether you’re pregnant or not( don’t eat too much sugar, don’t stress out). I’ve been eating very healthy for a few years now, so sugar isn’t really an issue for me.

  • Reply
    June 25, 2011 at 10:43 PM

    What is the first book you would recommend for someone who is determined to be as healthy as they can before a pregnancy.

    • Reply
      Elena @ Art of Making a Baby
      June 26, 2011 at 9:30 AM

      Paige, at the top of my blog there’s a link called prepregnancy resources (I think), it has a list of pre conception books I read. The yellow book (don’t remember the name) changed the way I looked at pregnancy completely. It was the most valuable information resource to me. It will get you started when it comes to the concept of what you need to do before and during pregnancy. It was the book that first introduced the concept of epigenetics to me.
      The second book was useful too as it broke down all the nutrients we will need.
      But I can’t say enough great things about the first book.
      Also I’d recommend you read at least 1 prenatal programming book that will explain why it’s necessary for you to be super healthy and ready for the pregnancy. The 3 I read are in the pregnancy resources list: origins, preparenting and prenatal prescription. There’s a link to them in the pregnancy resources page.
      Good luck and feel free to ask any questions!

      • Reply
        Marcy Axness
        May 11, 2012 at 6:22 PM

        Hi there, Elena!! I just came across your blog using the search term “prenatal epigenetics” — and I love it. I do hope you’ll consider taking a look at my new book “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.” The basic idea is that if we really want to change the world, we need to raise a generation hardwired with a suite of brain-based capacities required of the intellectually flexible innovative peacemaker — from the VERY beginning.

        It takes the kinds of research (such as David Barker’s fascinating epidemiological findings) on prenatal development (with a particular focus on psychosocial dimensions) that you explored here… and puts it into a context of a roadmap for parents beginning pre-conception and going through adolescence. I do iinc. a bit of material from Annie Murphy Paul’s book — she and I both spoke at last Nov’s APPPAH Congress (Assn. for Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology and Health), which is the organization founded by Thomas Verny.

        If you’d consider reviewing it, I’m happy to ask my publisher to send you a copy!

        Meanwhile, baby blessings!
        Marcy Axness, PhD
        author, “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers”

  • Reply
    March 8, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    E- I am a new Lactation Consultant and at the WALC- Breastfeeding Conference, we actually had an entire lecture on Epigenetics. The physician that spoke with us, Jennifer Thomas, MD, MPH, IBCLC, FAAP, FABM- actually cowrote some books as well if it’s something you’re still interested in reading about. Thanks for posting all of this great information and educational resources for new moms and moms to be!

    • Reply
      Elena @The Art of Making a Baby
      March 11, 2016 at 4:02 PM

      Yes, I love this subject! Epigenetics is so fascinating and not widely known about. What do you have?

      • Reply
        March 11, 2016 at 4:12 PM

        I’m actually a labor and delivery nurse who is working on their IBCLC. My husband and I have been TTC for almost 2 years and I just completed my recovery from an extensive endometriosis surgery in February. Just got the OK to start again. But being a nurse, we are very research driven with evidence based research, so your blog has a lot of helpful information!

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