Wednesday, June 24, 2015 - In addition to inheriting our DNA (genetic code) from our parents, we can also inherit certain "instructions" that determine which genes are expressed or not expressed. The study of these inherited modifications of gene expression is known as epigenetics.
A study conducted by researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) International Nutrition Group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the MRC Unit in the Gambia and published in April of 2014 in the journal Nature Communications provided the first proof that a mother's diet can change the expression of genes in her unborn child. Previous animal studies have suggested that maternal diet during pregnancy may affect the unborn, but this is the first study done on humans. These results demonstrate that “a mother's nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change how her child's genes will be interpreted, with a life-long impact."
Through a selection process involving over 2,000 women, the researchers enrolled pregnant women who conceived at the peak of the rainy season (84 women) and the peak of the dry season (83 women). By measuring the concentrations of nutrients in their blood, and later analyzing blood and hair follicle samples from their 2-8 month old infants, they found that a mother's diet before conception had a significant effect on the properties of her child's DNA.
Many epigenetic changes take place by means of preventing the normal "tagging" of certain regions of the genome with chemicals in the family known as methyl groups. This process, known as methylation, is known to turn off the expression of certain genes that should not normally be active. The researchers found that children conceived during the rainy season had significantly higher methylation rates than children conceived during the dry season. Higher methylation rates were also linked to higher concentrations of certain nutrients in the mother's blood, especially homocysteine and cysteine. It came as no surprise that a poor diet led to lower methylation rates, as normal methylation requires nutrients such as choline, folate, methionine and vitamins B2, B6 and B12.
In addition to diet, prior studies have shown that exposure to toxins may also produce epigenetic changes in the offspring of pregnant women.
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