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While it’s well known that pregnant women have to be vigilant about what they eat, a new study suggests that what women eat before conception can play a major role even after the baby is born.
Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study claims to provide strong evidence that a mother’s diet before pregnancy can permanently affect her child’s lifelong health by silencing certain genes.
For their research, scientists from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine took blood samples in 167 pregnant women from rural Gambia, measuring nutrient concentrations in their blood.
They then analyzed blood and hair follicle samples from their infants, ages two to eight months.
About half of the group (84 women) conceived at the peak of the rainy season, while 83 women conceived at the peak of the dry season.
Women who conceived during the rainy season consumed a more vitamin-rich diet of vegetables compared to their counterparts.
The combination of markedly different seasons, the population’s dependence on foods grown literally in their own backyard, and subsequent swings in nutrient availability offered researchers the ideal conditions for their research.
And what they found was that what women ate affected the process of gene expression in their babies -- specifically in a process called methylation, which is known for locking genes in the ‘off’ position.
The process of methylation -- which plays a crucial role in silencing gene expression -- is essential for cell differentiation and embryonic development.
A separate animal study, for instance, has shown that a female mouse's diet can change her offspring's coat color when DNA methylation is modified.
“Our ongoing research is yielding strong indications that the methylation machinery can be disrupted by nutrient deficiencies and that this can lead to disease,” explained co-author Andrew Prentice.
“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."
Copyright AFP Relaxnews, 2014.