We’ve all heard the phrase about a woman ‘eating for two’ during pregnancy. With new scientific insights, this has taken on new meaning: a mother’s nutrition at the time of conception actually influences lifelong development of her child, and may be a contributory factor to – or offer protection against – obesity in childhood and later life.
Following fertilisation, in the earliest phase of life, just a small number of cells exist. Through division these will later form a baby’s organs, skeleton and nervous system, as well as the placenta that nourishes the baby during pregnancy. According to the environment created by the mother’s nutritional state and lifestyle, these formative cells adapt the expression of their genes. This is epigenetics; the field of science exploring the dynamic nature of genes, which are switched on and off according to the environment.
The way that cells adapt to the environment at this early phase is great news for survival in the short term – in the mother’s womb, or in vitro culture in the case of IVF. The key issue is that as the cells continue to divide, they will repeat the same genetic behaviour. Although there is a degree of plasticity (ability to alter genetic expression and cellular behaviour) the tendency for repetition is strong. If environmental conditions and available nutrients change in later life, there is evidence that this early programming could underpin a tendency to obesity, decreased insulin sensitivity or cardiovascular problems.
This is more evidence for the important role that a mum plays in setting the scene for health at conception, for instance with good nutrition including folic acid supplementation, and a healthy lifestyle.
For more on this subject, see an abstract of a recent article here.