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You Are What Your Grandparents Ate
Around the year 2000, a paradigm shift in thinking about the origins of chronic disease began to take place. At that point two esteemed American epidemiologists published a paper noting they had finally become convinced by the many studies published by the British epidemiologist David Barker. Over the course of the previous decade, Dr. Barker’s work had been gaining traction and was helping to spawn a new field of science known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). This approach emerged from research showing that many of the risks for chronic disease – including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease – could be traced back to the first 1,000 days of existence, from the moment of conception and even beyond. A key “take-away” from the science is that what you eat, do and experience today will have an effect on your descendants decades from now. This applies to both men and women.
Pared back to basics, here’s how it works. At birth a baby girls’ ovaries already contain the eggs that one day will become her children. These eggs were formed and nourished while she developed in her mother’s (your grandmother’s) womb. Thanks to the relatively new science of epigenetics, which studies how your genes react to life experiences, we now know that the food your grandmother ate, the air she breathed and the stress she experienced while pregnant affected the quality of the egg that made you. Your grandmother’s experiences show up on your mother’s eggs as “biological memories” that are stamped on cells through a process known as epigenetic modification.
Your father, the other half of your genetic heritage, also has the potential to transmit biological memories, but in his case through sperm. Unlike eggs, sperm cells form in puberty. We know that the experiences young males have around this time, have the potential to be transmitted to future offspring via sperm. This process is known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and scientists began to notice the phenomenon in in epidemiological studies.
The seeds of poor or good health may be planted even before conception. These days, we’re very comfortable with the idea that some elements of health and well-being can be traced back to fetal development. Most mothers-to-be understand that eating a nutritious diet during pregnancy helps to produce a healthy baby. They are also conscious of avoiding environmental toxins and most heed warnings about other potential risks, such as alcohol consumption. What they may not realize is how this actually works at a biological level.
Basically, a baby who was poorly nourished in the womb or exposed to other forms of excessive stress will, when they reach adulthood, experience greater vulnerability to illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. That’s because a fetus exists in a state of heightened sensitivity to environmental impacts. Factors like poor nutrition or other forms of excessive stress spark changes in how its genes are expressed and these changes have the potential to reset body processes, usually in ways that influence metabolism. These epigenetic modifications leave marks on the plastic fetal cells, thereby “programming” health for the long term.
Throughout life the genome is constantly regulating itself. Normally, these are small adjustments but in certain stages of pregnancy, when the fetus is especially “plastic”, the long-term effects can be more serious. The good news is that because the epigenome changes quite rapidly, modifications triggered by environmental conditions may be reversed when conditions improve.
For instance, animal studies have shown that targeted changes to maternal nutrition improved the health not only of first generation offspring but of the second generation, as well. Because people have such long lifespans, intergenerational research on humans is more challenging. However, we have enough information to know that the human epigenome archives experiences and has the potential to pass on their effects through the generations. We also know that even minor changes, such as losing a small amount of weight or becoming moderately more active can positively affect gene expression. That’s why we need to start thinking of our health in a different way. It doesn’t begin and end with us. It’s a legacy to be inherited by future generations.
Judith Finlayson is a bestselling author who has written books on a variety of subjects from personal well-being and women’s history to food and nutrition. A former national newspaper columnist for The Globe and Mail, a magazine journalist and a board member of various organizations focusing on legal, medical and women’s issues, she is also the author of over a dozen cookbooks. Judith lives in Toronto.
Courtesy of “You Are What Your Grandparents Ate” by Judith Finlayson © 2019 www.robertrose.ca Reprinted with permission. Available where books are sold.