We are what we eat? We are also what our mother ate at the time of conception

We are what we eat? We are also what our mother ate at the time of conception

We recently provided an article to introduce the emerging and exciting field of nutrigenomics. Put most simply nutrigenomics is the study of the effects of foods on ‘gene expression’ and how nutrients from foods can have varying affect on different individuals based on their genes. Now a hugely exciting research project reveals that diet has the potential for significant impact on human health – from the earliest stages of life.

“First demonstration in humans that maternal nutrition around the time of conception influences offspring DNA methylation” – Is that not a fairly ‘mind-blowing’ sentence for an esteemed and reserved organisation to introduce their latest research? For further clarification their release announcing the research carries on:

“In a landmark study, researchers at ING along with collaborators in the US and Canada have demonstrated that variations in maternal diet at the time of conception affect DNA methylation at specific genes in their offspring. The study published this week in Nature Communications indicates that a mother’s diet causes persistent modifications to the DNA of her children. These modifications can affect gene expression, with the potential to influence growth, development and health in later life.

A mother’s diet before conception can permanently affect how her child’s genes function. The first such evidence of the effect in humans opens up the possibility that a mother’s diet before pregnancy could permanently affect many aspects of her children’s lifelong health.”

Nutrigenomics and maternal DNA and diet
The latest research reveals the ‘first demonstration in humans that maternal nutrition around the time of conception influences offspring DNA methylation’

The MRC International Nutrition Group (ING) based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine utilised a unique “experiment of nature” in rural Gambia (Africa). Previous studies had demonstrated a link between quality of diet in the mother, at preconception stage and pregnancy, and how this affected gene functions of the offspring from birth – but these were studies limited to research on animals.

This New study seems to now unequivocally demonstrate the same pattern in humans – what the mother eats from preconception stage onward can permanently affect the child’s gene functions (through ‘epigenetic’ modifications to the DNA). This gene ‘expression’ can permanently affect many aspects of the child’s life in terms of growth, development and disease predisposition and susceptibility.

This is a significant research finding. All health professionals would agree that the diet of a pregnant lady is of paramount importance. And this research reinforces that the maternal diet can affect the child at the most fundamental physical level – in their DNA. It underlines the critical message that for childbirth an appropriate maternal diet needs to commence sometime prior to conception – and continue on in to pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The ING research is further evidence of the increasing importance that the fields of ‘Nutrigenomics’ and ‘Epigenetics’ will play in the study and treatment of human health. Nutrigenomics (or ‘nutritional genomics’) is the study of the effects of foods and food constituents on gene expression.

So far the focus of this growing discipline has been on addressing nutrient uptake from birth onward. This research now reveals that the nutritional relevance starts at the point of conception (indeed before) and is a natural ‘affecter’ on our genes and their expression. A link to a summary of the research as described by the MRC International Nutrition Group (ING) is provided below and includes the following comments:

“While a child’s genes are inherited directly from their parents, how these genes are expressed is controlled through ‘epigenetic’ modifications to the DNA. One such modification involves tagging gene regions with chemical compounds called methyl groups and results in silencing the genes. The addition of these compounds requires key nutrients including folate, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, choline and methionine.“

Professor Andrew Prentice, Professor of International Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and head of the Nutrition Theme at the MRC Unit, The Gambia, said:

“Our on-going research is yielding strong indications that the methylation machinery can be disrupted by nutrient deficiencies and that this can lead to disease. Our ultimate goal is to define an optimal diet for mothers-to-be that would prevent defects in the methylation process. Pre-conceptional folic acid is already used to prevent defects in embryos. Now our research is pointing towards the need for a cocktail of nutrients, which could come from the diet or from supplements.”

Folic Acid supplementation is already recommended by the UK Department of Health for pregnant women and those planning pregnancy. Folate is particularly important in reducing the risks of Neural tube defects (NTDs) which remains one of the most common birth defects. This research adds to the emerging role of researching epigenetic mechanisms in the aetiology of neural tube defects.

Vitamin D supplementation is also recommended by the UK Department of Health for “women who are planning a pregnancy or might become pregnant, or who are already pregnant”. Suitable levels of vitamin D are needed by mother and child for a range of vital health functions including the prevention of rickets, a condition that affects bone development in children. The relevance of epigenetic factors relating to vitamin D and bone health have previously been discussed and this research must add impetus to the debate.

Indeed the research must surely provide positive momentum in increasing the recognition for the role of nutrigenomics and epigenetics in improving health care.

We provide the link to the MRC website below and to their pdf which gives an excellent overview of the research. The research was published by Nature Communications and we provide a link to the relevant page on their website ‘Maternal nutrition at conception modulates DNA methylation of human metastable epialleles’. As this article is of a more technical nature relevant to health professionals we have also provided a link to ScienceDaily and their review of the research.

If you want to be alerted by email when a new post is published simply add your email address in the ‘Get The Latest Post By Email’ in the right-hand column. If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.

Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
amanda@cytoplan.co.uk, 01684 310099

A Footnote on Folic Acid:

For supplementation of folic acid we only recommend methylfolate. Methylfolate (5MTHF) is the most stable, safe and bioeffective form of folate. Read our article on folic acid and methylfolate: Cytoplan Blog: Methylfolate

MRC International: First demonstration in humans that maternal nutrition around the time of conception influences offspring DNA methylation
MRC International: PDF – Mother’s diet affects the ‘silencing’ of her child’s genes
Nature.com: Maternal nutrition at conception modulates DNA methylation of human metastable epialleles
ScienceDaily: Mother’s diet affects the ‘silencing’ of her child’s genes
Cytoplan Blog: Nutrigenomics – Where nutrition meets genetics

Last updated on 11th December 2014 by


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