Blame Your Health on Mom? Not So Fast
Your mom can do a lot to help your health, but don’t be too quick to blame her when it goes wrong.
Shuffling the Genetic Deck
The process of inheriting genes is fairly equitable, but scientists are learning that with a small subset of genes, which parent you inherit them from can make a difference in how that gene affects you. The process is called "imprinting," and it may have an impact on the genetic mistakes, or mutations, that produce diseases.
"If you have a mutation in an imprinted gene ... how that mutation will impact you depends entirely on which parent you got it from," explains Christopher Gregg, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy and adjunct assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Utah.
For example, one particular genetic glitch can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, but only if you inherit it from your mother. Get the same gene variation from your father and you'll actually be protected against the disease.
When it comes to genes, know that your mother had no control over the traits that she passed to you. What she did have more control over was how well she nourished you while you were in her belly and during those first critical years of life.
Planting Healthy Roots
A lot happens during pregnancy. That's why pregnant women are advised to avoid smoking and alcohol, take certain supplements, and practice other good health habits.
Researchers are discovering that the stage is being set for a baby's future health almost from the moment of conception, and the factors that go into a baby's development are far more complex than they had once thought.
"By the time it arrives in the uterus, very important biological decisions have been made and those are unchangeable," says David Barker, MD, PhD, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Southampton, England and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. "The seeds of a range of chronic diseases are being sown at that time."
Barker's theory, which is gaining momentum in the scientific community, is that what happens in the womb could impact whether a child develops conditions like cancer or heart disease many years down the road. Barker has found that babies who grow slowly in the womb and are born at a lower weight are at greater risk for a whole range of conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Mom's Diet Counts
How the mother eats not only during her pregnancy but throughout her life can have an effect on her baby's health. "Babies live off the mother's body," Barker says. "And her body is the product of a lifetime of nutrition." In other words, mom's diet back in her own childhood can come back to either haunt -- or help -- her growing baby. He says mothers have to establish a lifetime of good nutrition, and not just eat a healthy diet while they're pregnant for it to make a difference to their children's health.