Growing up I was under the impression that pregnancy was a synonym for an eating free-for-all. It seemed like “eating for two” meant chowing down on ice cream & pickles (or in my moms case, hot fudge sundaes & french fries–sorry mom, had to share :] ). It wasn’t until I hit adulthood that I began thinking about the lack of logic behind it all. The foods that we consume become the building blocks for the tiny humans growing inside of us. In fact, our diet & lifestyle choices have a profound genetic & cellular effect on our growing baby.
For many, many years it was thought that our genes were predetermined & set-in-stone. Current research has found that this is only partially true. Yes, genes are passed down directly from our parents, grandparents, & beyond; however, the lifestyle choices that are passed through generations may be more telling than the genes themselves.
Our genes are complicated, far too complicated to attempt to explain via this post, but I’ll try to give a quick overview here.
what’s the deal with genes?
Each one of us is provided with a set of DNA from each parent. The actual DNA, or genetic code, that we receive at conception does not change for the entirety of our lives. Your ancestors may have provided you with genes that have a tendency towards everything from late greying hair to a higher likelihood of degenerative diseases.
however, our genes are only the half of it.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project, scientists have discovered the epigenome. Genome is another word for genes & DNA–& epigenome translates to “above the genes”. Our epigenome is a set of guidelines that control how our body reads our DNA.
Turns out that we have a highly intricate set of markers in our bodies called methyl tags. These tags attach or remove themselves from our DNA in order to determine whether or not certain genes are expressed. This means that the way that our DNA is read in our bodies is ever-changing. Crazy right?
what controls these methyl tags?
Our diet & lifestyle are in large part responsible for how our genes are read. Of course, there are other factors like our environment. Nevertheless, this puts our bodies back into our control in a BIG way. It’s pretty wonderful to know that undesirable genes that were passed down through DNA can be turned off & shut down by the choices that we make. It’s amazing! I am continually amazed with the human body.
what does this have to do with our babies?
Throughout our lives, the choices that we have made have caused our own DNA to be expressed in certain ways–some for better & some for worse! At your baby’s conception, when they receive the sets of DNA from both parents, nearly all of your methyl tags are wiped clean & the baby begins to create their own gene expression, staring with their health during the pregnancy.
Did you notice that I said nearly all of the tags are wiped clean? About 1% (approximately 240) of the genes that baby receives come with permanent methyl tags, mirroring those of either mama or papa. This means that your great health can make your child permanently predisposed to genetic fortune. It can also mean the complete opposite.
The foods that we choose to eat & the environmental exposure choices that we make affect our babies before we are even pregnant with them. I think that this is amazing news! It means that we have the power to enrich our babies health long before they arrive. Not only can we strengthen the health of our epigenome before we get pregnant, but we can choose to live a healthy lifestyle that we can pass down to them so that they have the opportunity to build their bodies for healthy gene expression as well.
Want to learn more?
Below are some great & easy tools to help explain & elaborate!
Dolinoy D.C., Weidman J.R., Waterland R.A., Jirtle R.L. (2006). Maternal Genistein Alters Coat Color and Protects Avy Mouse Offspring from Obesity by Modifying the Fetal Epigenome. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114:567-572.
Dolinoy D.C., Huang D., Jirtle R.L. (2007). Maternal nutrient supplementation counteracts bisphenol A-induced DNA hypomethylation in early development. PNAS, 104: 13056-13061.