University of Southampton: Health of Both Parents Pre-Conception Affects DNA Expression in the Child

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Researchers from the University of Southampton and collaborators from other U.K. research institutions have published a series of three papers in The Lancet. These papers outline how pre-conception parental health affects many aspects of their offspring’s growth and development post-conception, and their health in later life.

The pre-conception period is defined as the time (three months on average) that a couple might be trying to conceive, but this new research bolsters the idea that the years running up to where a couple might be considering having a baby should also be carefully managed.

It is proposed that both parents need to be in good health and have a well-balanced diet to reduce the chances of detrimental conditions that the child might have, and most data shows that typical diets fall short of required healthy nutrition. It is clear from an overwhelming majority of research that maternal health is a priority of concern, however, the paternal health may play a role. As of yet, it is uncertain as to what the concrete implications might be.

Waiting until you know you are pregnant may be too late to benefit from improving your health.

Unhealthy diet and poor habits lead to increased risks of issues with growth, metabolism, and development whilst in the crucial stages prior to birth, for example, maternal obesity and consumption of caffeinated soft drinks have been proven to increase chances of cerebral palsy. Other medical issues include type 2 diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, immune problems and neurological disorders.

It has been found previously that there are effects of maternal nutrition on the unborn child such as seasonal changes in the energy input. These changes are primarily epigenetic, meaning that they occur ‘above the genome’. They are not genetic changes and instead are due to differences in the magnitude of DNA coiling and methylation that lead to varying levels of expression.

Maturing gametes are very sensitive to environmental changes through the early stages of embryonic development. For example, female obesity is known to increase hormone variability, and male obesity leads to poor sperm count, function and quality. These levels of variability are not conducive to a predictable environment for a developing embryo and therefore leads to congenital issues.

Bad health habits such as excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, malnutrition and smoking are highlighted as some of the problems which most adversely affect child health.

The researchers involved in these papers are calling for greater awareness and guidance in a coordinated movement to improve support for reducing obesity and improving nutrition, including access to information about supplementation and fortification, and behavioural changes.

It is important to stress that this research is not to say that all women should be making lifestyle changes early on in life to accommodate for eventually having a child, as not all women will be able to or indeed want to. Instead, it is adding to the bank of evidence that public health education in cutting out smoking and reducing alcohol/caffeine intake, as well as maintaining balanced diets is important for all aspects of human health, including that of the next generation.

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