Sunday, September 23, 2012

A healthy diet also matters before pregnancy

It is common knowledge that unhealthy behaviour during pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn child. Therefore, many prospective mothers quit smoking and drinking while carrying a child. New research shows that a healthy diet and behavioural pattern is also important before getting pregnant. The study, conducted by scientists from the Nutrition Research Institute at the University of North Carolina indicates that prospective mothers should not wait with adapting their behaviour until they get pregnant.

Fatty acids
In order to establish how diet pattern affects offspring, the researchers conducted experiments with mice. They are easy to use because their pregnancy only lasts around three weeks. Female mice were given either a control diet or a diet that lacked a certain type of fatty acid, called ALA. The diets were supplied before pregnancy. After delivery, both the offspring and the mothers were given either a diet rich in ALA or just a control diet. A schematic overview can be found below. The goal of the experiment was to assess the effect of ALA presence on the activity of a gene called Fads2, which is known to be necessary in order to metabolize fatty acids such as ALA.
The scientists found that ALA presence in the diet affected the activity of Fads2, both in offspring and mothers. What they found is an increase in methylation on the gene, which means that the genetic code on the genome is covered with methyl molecules. These are known to have an inhibitory effect on the expression of the genes they are attached to. This form of genetic modification, which is performed by changing things without actually modifying the genetic code, is called epigenetics. The field of epigenetics is fairly new, and we have only just begun to understand how such genetic modifications affect our genes.

While there is a clear relationship between dietary intake of  ALA fatty acids and gene activity, the scientists also found a connection with the diet of the mother prior to pregnancy: mouse mothers who were given the ALA- diet gave birth to pups that had a lower degree of methylation on the Fads2 gene, regardless of the offspring's own ALA intake (ALA+ or control). Taken together, it shows that fatty acid consumption affects our genes, and that this effect can be passed on to our offspring.

Obviously, more research is necessary to find out what the implications are of this study. The long-term outcome of such inherited changes in epigenetics are unclear, but it is an interesting field to explore. Because our behaviour is already causing a lot of metabolic diseases, including diabetes and obesity-associated dysfunctions caused by unhealthy dietary habits, finding out how this relates to inherited changes in offspring is important. Perhaps it gives prospective mothers an incentive to change whatever unhealthy habits they may have, because, pregnant or not, it may affect their future children.


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