I never truly appreciated how becoming a parent would change my life. Life is no longer just about me, every decision I make affects these mini-beings who view the world through my eyes. While social modelling is vitally important, it goes far deeper than that. As modern science is discovering, our daily decisions actually influence gene expression in our children, helping to determine their health and development.
In case you don’t spend your days buried in scientific literature, let me introduce you to epigenetics. This new hot area of genetic research is the study of the biological mechanisms which turn genes on and off. Despite having the same parents and therefore the same basic genetic foundation, my four blood siblings and I have a wide array of hair and eye colors, skin tones, facial features, and structural builds; all due to up- and downregulation of the approximately 20,000 genes we share. These factors are all around you, and many of them are even under your control. What you eat, your physical activity habits, your sleep hygiene, stress levels, exposure to environmental elements - all of these lifestyle factors can induce chemical reactions that can turn genes on and off. This can influence risk for various diseases and other components of your physiological health. Even more fascinating, through epigenetic modifications, these habits can turn genes on and off in your unborn children.
As a father who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a very real concern of mine was the risk to my future children of having neurological conditions. Thanks to modern research, we already know that the age of the father at inception, and also the difference in age between the parents, can influence the up and downregulation of specific Autism-related genes, and the research is being pushed further. According to a recent study co-funded by Autism Speaks and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, a male’s exposure to certain environmental hazards (specifically, contact with some toxic chemicals) produces epigenetic changes in their sperm which may influence risk for ASD symptoms in their children. To make further connections, these changes were found in 193 genes which are known to be crucial to brain development and which researchers previously found are tell-tale epigenetic alterations in the post-mortem brain tissue of individuals with ASD. While we still know so little about the origins of Autism Spectrum Disorders and this research is still in its infant stages, this does provide some food for thought into how much emphasis we should put on limiting our own toxic load and exposure to harsh chemicals.
That high stress job or long work commute may also be influencing the cognitive development of your yet unborn children. In animal models, studies have shown that stress can influence the production of microRNA (epigenetic markers which can alter the expression of proteins by “silencing” strands of coding RNA) which alter stress response. Stress actually altered the expression of hundreds of genes within the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain which is intricately involved in hormonal regulation of the stress response. In other words, consistently putting yourself in stressful situations may inhibit your children’s future ability to handle test-taking or public speaking. Time to be proactive about stress reduction, maybe try diffusing some Lavender essential oil.
At every prenatal appointment mothers are reminded to take their prenatal vitamins, in part because women are often deficient in vitamin B9 (folate), a micronutrient which is vitally important for the spinal and brain development of an unborn fetus and often deficient in the average Western Diet. Recent epigenetic research suggests that men may also want to increase their intake of dark leafy greens or include a comprehensive multi-vitamin in their supplement regimen. In a study conducted at McGill University, researchers found that the intake of folate was directly associated with both the odds of getting a partner pregnant and the health of the potential fetus. It is theorized that folate may help the diet-sensitive sperm epigenome turn on and off specific genes which are vital for its survival in utero. If you are trying to have a baby, and a healthy one at that, there is no more important time to start examining your dietary habits.
That’s why I love science. With solid data and some basic statistical analysis I can make definitive conclusions and determine the likelihood that the results are not repeatable (the p-value). Parenting is not so straightforward; the world’s most fulfilling game of stakes, but a gamble nonetheless. We all want our children to be healthy, but there are no guarantees. Fortunately, as science continues to uncover, we can stack the deck in favor of our children’s health with our lifestyle decisions. Epigenetics is more proof that the most surefire way to have healthier children is to be healthier yourself. It’s a huge responsibility, but it comes with an even bigger reward.