Oftentimes, women are careful about what they eat during pregnancy for fear of harming their unborn child; however, a new study suggests that mom’s diet before conception can actually influence her baby’s DNA. Researchers believe changes in DNA are long lasting and could potentially influence the child’s development.
In a study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, researchers reviewed diets of the women living in rural parts of The Gambia in West Africa. These women often experience significant changes in their diets, due to changes in the weather, from rainy seasons to dry seasons.
Robert Waterland, study author and nutritional epigeneticist with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said the rainy season refers to a time of hunger because they often run out of food. These women typically eat a daily diet consisting of rice, millet, cassava, and peanuts. However, during the rainy season, those foods are not available and their diets consist mostly of leafy green vegetables.
It is also important to note that these women did not only experience change in their diets during the rainy season. Their levels of physical activity increased due to farm work, which caused many of them to lose weight during the rainy season and then regain that weight during the dry season. These types of fluctuations contributes to which nutrients can be found in the mother’s bloodstream during pregnancy.
During the study, researchers examined nutrients found in the bloodstream of 84 pregnant women who had become pregnant during the peak of the rainy season and another 83 women who conceived during the peak of the dry season. The researchers also looked at the women’s babies who were between the ages of two to eight months old, analyzing six specific genes.
The researchers were able to determine that infants who were conceived during the peak of rainy season had higher rates of methylation, which refers to a change that has been made to DNA by adding methyl groups to the DNA strand. The increased methylation rate was present in all six genes. Methylation refers to an epigenetic modification, which can silence a gene’s expression.
While methylation typically depends on various nutrients such as folate, vitamins B2 and B6, choline, and methionine, the methylation present in the babies DNA was linked to nutrient levels found in the mother’s bloodstream. This helped researchers determine that nutritional deficiencies in mom’s diet just before conception can in fact influence her baby’s DNA during pregnancy and those changes are permanently.
This is the first study that has been able to demonstrate a correlation between a mother’s nutritional well-being prior to conception, and how that well-being will affect the DNA of her baby over the course of its life. Waterland admits that long-term consequences of these DNA changes are unknown at this point. However, he said they plan to catalog all regions in the human genome that can be altered epigenetically by diet. “This will give us the ability to tell what the likely role of such changes may have on disease, and what particular diseases might be most likely to have an epigenetic component.” He said.
The study did in fact; prove that mom’s diet prior to conception can influence her babies DNA during pregnancy. The ultimate goal now, said Andrew Prentice, another study author, is to determine what an optimal diet consists of for mothers-to-be that would prevent defects in methylation. He suggests that the research is leaning toward a “cocktail of nutrients” that the women could obtain through diet or supplements.
By Donna W. Martin