Epigenetics and Pregnancy

Epigenetics and Pregnancy

If you’ve never heard of epigenetics, you’re probably not alone, but they are everywhere, important and need to be discussed. To put it simply, epigenetics are the biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off. Not only that, but what you eat, how you exercise and when you sleep are all epigenetics and all influence the biological mechanisms in your body.This article will discuss the impact nutrition has on epigenetics and pregnancy, and what things you can do to have the least negative effects on your epigenetics.

Epigenetics, pregnancy and nutrition

During pregnancy, the body of mother and unborn child go through a huge process of change and developments. During pregnancy, the fetal development is influenced by the maternal patterns, which have an affect on the genetic development of the foetus. This is referred to as foetal programming, and has been widely studied as a factor in the development of the child after birth.


In one famous study of the Dutch Famine of 1944–1945, it was found that children born to mothers who were in the early stages of pregnancy during the famine were at an increased risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders later in life. This is because the foetus is surviving in adverse intrauterine conditions, and this type of developmental programming increases the risk of chronic illness later in life. This is because the epigenetics can change the organ and tissue development for life.


Just as malnutrition during pregnancy can have a huge impact on foetal development, so too can maternal obesity. Maternal obesity in mice has been linked to increased predisposition to obesity and type 2 diabetes in their offspring. There has been increased studies in the epigenetic interaction between obese individuals and their offspring. These new studies have started to shed light on the impact perinatal exposure to obesity has on organ and tissue development. One of the findings of these recents studies has been that prenatal exposure to overnutrition and obesity has been linked to DNA changes in growth, embryonic development and metabolic disease.


Smoking is bad for you in general, but smoking while pregnant is even more dangerous to both mother and child. However, exposure to smoking is one of the most common hazardous exposures for children in utero. In 2006, the US Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 126 million nonsmoking adults were exposed to secondhand smoking. Not only that, but there is evidence to suggest that epigenetic modifications can be inherited from generation to generation. As such, exposure to secondhand smoke during a woman’s lifetime, regardless of whether she is exposed to it during her pregnancy, can have a detrimental impact on the health of her children and even her grandchildren.

The reality is that epigenetics is affected by, and affects everything in your environment. External environmental influences can change the biological makeup of your DNA and genes, and these changes can be inherited by future generations. Therefore, the genetic code of your children and grandchildren could be affected by environmental factors they were never directly exposed to.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle while pregnant

The important thing is to try to maintain as healthy a lifestyle as possible, as things you may not be directly exposed to can change your genetic code, and the genetic code of future generations. Without question, it’s important to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle during pregnancy and in period preceding pregnancy. That’s why there are a number of things that are commonly recommended to pregnant women, and those trying to conceive.

Folic acid

It’s been recommended for decades that women of fertile age should take a folic acid supplement. This is due to its ability to help lessen the chances of the children having a neural tube defect such as spina bifida. It’s recommended that a daily dose of 400 mcg of folic acid - also known as Vitamin B9 - should be taken immediately before becoming pregnant, and for at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. It’s also safe to continue taking folic acid beyond the 12th week of pregnancy.

Avoid raw meat

There is always a risk of getting sick from eating undercooked or raw meat, but getting ill from undercooked meat can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women. It’s also recommended that cured meats be eaten sparingly, as they are not cooked, but cured or fermented. This increases their chance of containing parasites, so if you have a craving, freeze the meats for 4 days before eating them. Freezing kills most parasites, which makes these safer to eat.

Avoid exposure to smoke

This is probably something you may struggle with, particularly in restaurants or pubs. It is illegal to smoke indoors but often people will have a cigarette outside the door of a place that you are entering, even though they’re not supposed to. This makes it difficult to avoid entirely, but trying to avoid it as much as possible is recommended due to the huge influence it has on the epigenetics of future generations.

Environmental factors not only affect our mental and physical health, they also have a role to play in our DNA and genetic coding. These factors can change our biochemistry and the biochemistry of our children and grandchildren and unfortunately, there is very little we can do to combat this. That’s not to say that we should give up, it is hugely important to the generations who come after us that we try to lead as healthy lives as possible. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and limiting our exposure to dangerous chemicals and materials are the best things we can do to try to avoid altering our genes for the long term.


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