When a woman becomes pregnant, she often makes all sorts of lifestyle changes in order to provide the growing baby with all of the nutrients, love, and classical music needed for optimal development. But far more than putting earphones on a growing tummy, a mother’s diet can have a dramatic impact on her child’s health—even before she knows she is carrying a baby.
A new study in the journal Nature Communications reveals that a mother’s nutrition at the time of conception can have lasting effects on a child’s DNA.
The study is the first of its kind to show that environmental factors (with the womb being the environment) can alter DNA in the first few days of development.
Though the study was limited in that it didn’t look at how these changes affected the baby’s health later in life and only analyzed six genes, it does offer unique information on just how important a woman’s health is even before she decides to get pregnant.
“Can diet affect other genes? What’s the biological impact of those [DNA] modifications? At the moment we don’t know the answer to those questions,” says Andrew Prentice, a nutritionist involved with the study. “But subsequent research we have — and haven’t [yet] published — says it does matter.”
Prentice says the research doesn’t mean mom’s diet permanently alters a child’s genetic blueprint, but that it plays a role in which genes are switched off or on in those initial stages of growth.
As OPB explains, “This on-and-off switch is controlled by decorating the DNA with a special tag, called methylation. How much the six genes got tagged in the developing embryo depended on the levels of a few micronutrients in the mom’s blood at the time of conception,” the researchers found.
The researchers weren’t looking at women whose diets were completely out of whack. On the contrary, they said the blood samples taken were considered “normal”. But by looking at several B vitamins, they determined that when some of them were on the lower end of the range, the associated genes had less methylation, a tag that controls the on-off switch.
The findings are not surprising to those in the field, who have long hypothesized a mother’s nutrition right around the time of conception is critical to a child’s health, but it is exciting nonetheless.