Epigenetics and Pregnancy: How Your Choices Shape Your Baby's Future

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Conventional wisdom and medical recommendations propose a host of guidelines for pregnant women. Some of the most well-known pieces of advice include:

  • abstaining from drinking alcohol and smoking
  • avoiding stress
  • taking folic acid
  • exercising regularly

Now scientists are discovering even more reasons to follow the doctor's orders. All of these things effect your unborn baby's epigenetics—changes to the genes that determine how cells will grow and develop. Epigenetic changes are responsible for cell differentiation in your growing baby, determining which cells will become his or her brain, heart, eyes, and so on.

While many of these changes happen naturally and contribute to normal development, other changes can be triggered by exposure to certain chemicals and hormones. These unnatural changes have been linked to the risk of a child developing an array of disorders and diseases, from diabetes to cancer1 to autism2. Some of these manifest in childhood, but others go unnoticed until adulthood. So a mother's diet and habits while pregnant can have impacts on her child even decades after he or she is born.

The first few weeks of pregnancy3 seem to be a particularly vulnerable time in fetal development. During this time, the delicate process of development can be easily disrupted by external influences, affecting the epigenetic changes that will contribute to the shape of your baby's future. The exact genes that, when impacted by epigenetic changes, lead to risk of each disease and disorder have not been pinpointed, and further study is required to fully understand which behaviors and dietary considerations cause the most impact, but the discoveries so far certainly give parents everywhere food for thought.

So the next time you consider having that glass of wine with dinner, ignoring your doctor's dietary suggestions, or working stressful overtime hours, think again. Consider that the choices you make while pregnant could be shaping your baby's future just as much as your decisions after he or she has been born.

References

1. Weidman, J. R., Dolinoy, D. C., Murphy, S. K., & Jirtle, R. L. (2007). Cancer susceptibility: epigenetic manifestation of environmental exposures. The Cancer Journal. 13(1): 9–16.

2. Ladd-Acosta, C., Hansen, K. D., Briem, E., Fallin, M. D., Kaufmann, W. E., & Feinberg, A. P. (2013). Common DNA methylation alterations in multiple brain regions in autism. Molecular Psychiatry. doi: 10.1038/mp.2013.114

3. Hamilton, J. (2013). How a pregnant woman's choices could shape a child's health. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/09/23/224387744/how-a-pregnant-womans-choices-could-shape-a-childs-health