Pregnancy: Your Health Now & Future Generations

Mother holding her baby hand
Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

Every mother’s womb offers a rarefied view of, and influence over, the health of future generations. How so? Well, consider that the egg that formed you developed in the womb of your maternal grandmother. Yes, really. Just mull that over for the moment, and we’ll get back to it.

Womb With a (Long) View

These days, thoughts about pregnancy and health risks may turn quickly to the Zika virus. But pregnancy has major implications on future health in ways entirely unrelated to the acute hazards of infection.

I’m sure you already knew that what happens during pregnancy affects the health of both a mom and baby in many ways. But did you know that Mom’s diet during pregnancy introduces flavors to the baby via the bloodstream, and exerts an early influence on that child’s future taste preferences? That influence continues and is increased during breastfeeding; compounds from Mom’s diet are transmitted directly to the baby’s palate via breast milk, and play a role in determining what foods are familiar, and thus, preferred.

For the mother, pregnancy is a very significant physiologic stressor that can express itself in a wide variety of ways. Women with risk factors for diabetes, and especially those who gain too much weight during pregnancy, may develop gestational diabetes, which is a potent predictor of type 2 diabetes later. A mom taking medications before becoming pregnant may need to stop them to avoid ill effects on the embryo.

And the profound effects of pregnancy on immune system function can make everything from allergies to autoimmune disease better or worse.

Even more obvious is the influence of those nine months of pregnancy on the health of the newborn. What may be less obvious is that Mom’s health is a potent influence on the environment in the womb.

Higher insulin levels in Mom’s blood, for instance, because of excess weight gain and insulin resistance, alter the hormonal environment in which the baby develops, increasing the risks for future obesity and type 2 diabetes in the baby.

These effects are potent and important, and a strong argument for practicing the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy especially. But the case gets stronger with a consideration of epigenetics.

Epigenetics 101

Believe it or not, most of the real estate in our chromosomes is not occupied by genes. We used to think all of that space in our genome was useless—like vacant lots between neighborhoods.  But we now know the space between genes is anything but junk. It is the epigenome.

The epigenome is the portion of our chromosomes that tells genes about the world they are living in, and what to do about it. You might think of genes as factory workers on an assembly line, and the epigenome is the executive office. The executives learn about changing inventory and conditions, and can adjust the activities and priorities of the assembly line accordingly.

The workers are the same workers, and they are always there—but what they do changes with the instructions they are issued.

Similarly, our genes are the same genes, and they are always there. What they do, however, changes with the instructions they receive from the epigenome. The epigenome, in turn, is influenced by our environmental exposures, both around us and within us, with lifestyle practices among the most powerful.

What’s the evidence? Well, consider that a lifestyle intervention in men with early stage prostate cancer, as noted in a 2008 study, dramatically turned down the activity of some 500 cancer promoter genes, and dramatically turned up the activity of some 50 cancer suppressor genes. What the epigenome tells us is that with rare exception, DNA is not destiny.

To a far greater extent, dinner is destiny. Not just dinner, of course, but the whole array of lifestyle practices: diet quality (a diet emphasizing minimally processed vegetables; fruits; whole grains; beans; lentils, nuts; seeds; sustainable fish; and water when thirsty); physical activity (a routine part of every day); avoiding toxins like tobacco; sleep (getting enough each night, roughly seven to eight hours); managing stress; and enjoying loving relationships.

This brings us back to those eggs in our grandmothers’ wombs. When a baby girl is developing in her mother’s uterus, her ovaries are developing within her body, of course. All of the eggs she will ever produce in her lifetime are fully formed in those ovaries before ever she is born. And those eggs represent half of the genetic complement of any future children she may have. So, as noted above, the eggs that made you and me formed in the wombs of our maternal grandmothers, because that’s where our mothers developed—and within them, their ovaries, and within their ovaries, those eggs.

What we now know is that the epigenetic controls in the chromosomes of those eggs are shaped by the environment in which they develop (namely, our grandmothers’ wombs). If our maternal grandmother had poor health during pregnancy—if she gained too much weight, smoked, ate poorly, was terribly stressed out, or developed gestational diabetes—it may well exert an influence on OUR lifetime health risks, even now.

The good news for us is that our own behaviors and lifestyle practices can reset our epigenetic controls, so a lot of power resides with us. But for today’s purposes, let’s acknowledge: To some extent, the care every grandmother takes of herself during pregnancy will reverberate through her daughters and across an expanse of several generations.    

Calling All Fathers

With all this talk of mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, I want to be very clear about some other words that absolutely should be part of this discussion: families; households; fathers; and men.

First, there is, of course, an epigenome in the chromosomes of sperm, too, and the health and lifestyle of every father influences those.

But even if we focus on pregnancy exclusively, we should note that healthy living during pregnancy is a family affair. There is strength in the unity of a household, and all members can help achieve the best welcome for the newborn by practicing health together.

One special message to every father, from this father of five: A lot of guys are too tough, oblivious, or stubborn to think about taking care of their own health. But let’s acknowledge that protecting those we love from prevailing dangers is time-honored “guy” stuff! And these days, those dangers are much more likely to be obesity and diabetes than lions and tigers and bears.

The only reliable way to protect the health of those you love is to practice healthy living yourself, and share it.  I am calling on all fathers to look at pregnancy as the ideal time to do exactly that, and get in the game.

Power and Responsibility

We all know the adage, courtesy of Spiderman: With great power, comes great responsibility.

Pregnancy confers the power to influence directly the health of several generations by establishing the settings of the epigenome. With that great power comes every family’s responsibility to take good care of the future, and those they will come to love most, by taking the best possible care of themselves.

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