What Your Parents Eat at the Time of Your Conception Has an Amazing Effect on Your Life

National   |   Sarah Zagorski   |   Sep 16, 2015   |   12:09PM   |   Washington, DC

In an article in BBC Magazine, biologist Michael Mosley explains that what a woman eats at the time of her baby’s conception can have a huge impact on her child’s health. He begins by explaining that a study conducted by Britain’s Medical Research Council found that in The Gambia, a small South African country, the time when you are conceived makes a huge difference in your chances of survival.

Mosley writes, “If you are conceived in, say, January and born in September then, as an adult, you are seven times more likely to die in any given year than someone conceived in September and born in June. So the effect is big, very big.” He explains that this phenomenon has a lot to do with the weather in the country, which consists of a long dry season and a shorter wet season.

“During the dry season people have plenty of couscous and rice to eat, and these grains form the major part of their diet. During the rainy season there are fewer calories around (these are known as the Hungry Months) but, thanks to the rain, there are a lot more leafy green vegetables to eat,” Mosley explained.

Since the seasons change what people eat in The Gambia, researchers found that during the wet season pregnant women who ate leafy green vegetables had healthier children. However, the differences in health were not noted until after the child turned 15, which Mosley found remarkable.

He said, “What really surprised me is that not only are the effects so profound, but that they don’t kick in for many years. Up until the age of 15 there’s no discernible difference between the children. After that, however, the differences, as I described earlier, become striking, even shocking.”

Mosley explained that these findings make sense because of past studies that show a mother’s diet can have a huge impact on her child’s health. Then he cited the Dutch Famine Study, which found that if a woman was in the early stages of her pregnancy during the famine her child was twice as likely to develop heart disease later in life. Additionally, Mosley said they were much more prone to have mental illness, obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

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Here’s more from Mosley:

Experiments in animals have shown that it is possible to make the genes in an embryo more active, or turn them off entirely, simply by varying their mother’s diet. It would obviously be unethical to do this to people, but the studies done in The Gambia certainly provide compelling evidence that these so-called “epigenetic changes” may also happen in humans in response to a change in diet. That if, during very early development, a mother eats a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, then this will change forever just how active some of her child’s genes are.

In happens through a process called methylation and researchers in The Gambia have recently shown that babies conceived in the wet season have very different levels of activity of a particular gene that’s important for regulating the immune system.

As Matt Silver, part of the MRC team, says: “Variation in methylation state in this gene could affect your ability to fight viral infections and it may also affect your chances of survival from cancers such as leukaemia and lung cancer.” If you are thinking of having a baby, then eating lots of leafy green vegetables, which are rich in B vitamins and folates, is certainly a good thing to do. Folic acid supplements are also recommended to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.

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