Preconception Care and Epigenetics – the influence of diet, lifestyle and environment on future generations
Epigenetics refers to the process where genetic expression can be influenced or changed according to outside influences i.e diet, lifestyle and the environment. What this means is the diet, lifestyle and environment of your parents and grandparents will impact on your health through influencing the expression of your genes; and your diet, lifestyle and environment will impact on the health of your children through influencing the expression of their genes.
These epigenetic influences are particularly strong in the 4-6 months prior to conception, throughout the pregnancy, and up to 2-3 years of age. What this means is that despite the influences of diet, lifestyle and environment, gene expression can be changed through good diet and lifestyle choices.
Paternal Health Matters – Dads need to be healthy
Preconception care usually focuses on the mother. The health of the father is just as important. Research has indicated that folate deficiency, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, high fat diet and increased age at the time of conception all lead to increased health risks on children fathered by men who fall into one or more of the aforementioned nutritional or lifestyle categories.
Correcting nutritional and lifestyle shortfalls is essential to ensure reduced risk of epigenetic changes to offspring. Preconception care for fathers needs to start at least 4 months before conception.
Ideally, prospective fathers need to seek the advice of a qualified and accredited naturopath and/or nutritionist who can assess their health and nutritional status and provide advice and guidance on how to address deficiencies in nutrition.
Simple things you can do include:
- Eating a mostly plant based diet
- Overweight or obese – lose a minimum of 10% of body weight
- Exercise regularly – a minimum of 150 minutes a week
- Quit smoking (https://www.quit.org.au/ has some good information on how to quit smoking)
- Minimise alcohol consumption
Good maternal health means strong and healthy babies that grow into strong and healthy children and adults.
We all know about the importance of folate in preconception and pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects. Research has identified a range of other nutrients that are essential to preconception and the development of a healthy baby.
As well as folate, Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) Vitamin B3 (Niacin), and choline have all been identified as essential to the prevention of neural tube defects.
Choline is also important for foetal:
- Brain and central nervous system development
- Cell membrane formation and replication
- Neurogenesis and hippocampal development
Broadly speaking, adequate levels of choline produce smarter babies.
Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) supports foetal neuronal development. Omega 3 fatty acids are particularly important in the last trimester when the baby puts on fat, including fat in the brain as part of the myelin sheath in the brain and nervous system tissue. Research has shown that Omega 3 fatty acids taken during pregnancy may reduce the risk of the infant and child developing allergies.
Vitamin D is important for more than bones. Adequate levels of vitamin D support both maternal and infant outcomes. Maternal deficiency of vitamin D can impact on neurodevelopment, possibly increasing the risk of autism. Vitamin D helps with immune function, and adequate levels during pregnancy may protect against childhood allergies.
Iodine during pregnancy is important for IQ. Research has shown that inadequate maternal iodine preconception and during pregnancy can impact negatively on the child’s IQ.
Iron is important for blood development and for the development of healthy rain tissue. Intake of iron needs to be balanced – too much is as unsatisfactory as too little.
Multivitamins and Preconception/Pregnancy Care
Preconception and pregnancy is one of the few times I recommend a patient take a multivitamin. This ensures mothers and potential mothers get the best nutritional care they can to support conception, pregnancy and a healthy baby.
For fathers, a multivitamin can improve overall reproductive health, particularly sperm count and motility, and protect against chromosomal abnormalities.
Remember, not all supplements & herbal products are created equal. Purchasing a supplement outside the clinical environment brings risks of substitution & contamination, reduced therapeutic compounds leading to reduced efficacy, and potential instability. Supplements I recommend have been developed based on the latest scientific research and are evidence based, have the correct level of therapeutic compounds, are manufactured under government guidelines, and are free from contamination. To be sure you are receiving a safe and effective supplement, always purchased your supplements based on recommendations from a qualified, accredited and registered naturopath, nutritionist and herbalist.
Obesity, Stress and Toxic Load – relevant for Mums and Dads
Manage your Weight
For men, being overweight or obese can change reproductive health, particularly sperm health. Research has shown that being overweight or obese can change gene expression in sperm, therefore impacting on the health of the developing baby, and the baby once it is born. Research has shown that children of obese fathers have a greater risk of developing insulin resistance, obesity, and may have low fertility.
For women, being overweight or obese can add complications to conception, pregnancy and the baby. Babies born of overweight or obese mothers have a greater chance of being overweight, and developing metabolic disorders like diabetes.
For future mums and dads who are overweight, losing as little as 10% of your current body weight can improve reproductive health.
Research has indicated that both paternal and maternal stress can impact on the yet to be conceived and unborn child through genetic expression. High levels of stress can also impact on the ability of a woman to conceive.
While studying I did some research on the impact of stress on the health of the foetus and later the child. Generally speaking, being stressed before and during pregnancy can prime the unborn child’s stress response system to react to even minor stressors.
Stress and paternal and maternal health is another topic that’s too big to talk about here. Get your stressors sorted before conception.
There is so much research on the impact of environmental toxins of reproductive health that I can’t write about it all here. Suffice to say that potential parents (mums and dads) may need to do complete a detox program prior to trying to conceive.
Our modern lifestyle exposes us to toxins on a daily basis. It’s very hard to remove all toxins from your environment, however you can minimise toxic exposure by choosing to:
- Use cleaning and personal care products that contain minimal chemicals:
- Eating organic food wherever possible
- Checking you house for mould and removing any mould you find
- Minimise the use of plastics
- Avoid processed foods
What Can You Do?
When you are thinking about having a baby, think about having a health check before you start trying to conceive.
Consult with a qualified and accredited Naturopath, Nutritionist or Herbalist who can assess your overall health and provide professional advice on what you need to do to be in the best place to conceive and have a healthy baby.