How to nurture to transform your nature: epigenetics and health
Updated: Jun 19, 2018
I recently hosted a home screening of the documentary 'In Utero', a fascinating inquiry into the impact of the mother’s experiences and environment on the development of the fetus in utero, during childhood and into adulthood.
The film highlighted the fact that our genetics are just a small part of the puzzle when it comes to determining our health, and that the epigenetic factors such as maternal emotional state and environmental toxins can have a much more profound effect on the long term health outcomes for the child.
Many of the practitioners who joined me for this screening felt quite overwhelmed after watching the film, unsure whether they had the tools and capacity to support women to overcome the challenges that they face and prevent the consequences of maternal stress. I actually felt that this film was a source of empowering information, highlighting that there ARE ways that we can influence our genetic predisposition to chronic disease, by being aware of the impact that our environment has on our gene expression, and taking small but daily steps to optimise our environment, with the support of our loved ones and health practitioners.
The impact of maternal stress
One example that was explored in the documentary was the impact of maternal stress on fetal growth. It was explained that high levels of cortisol can affect the placenta and consequently impair fetal growth. Growth restriction does make the infant more susceptible to complications during the newborn period, such as infection, and into childhood. However there are many interventions available for reducing maternal stress, and it is vital that women are made aware of these so they can implement these during their pregnancy and after the baby is born.
Of course there are many environmental factors that are out of our control. The film explored the impact of World War II on the pregnancies and children of Jewish mothers. The stress and trauma that these mothers experienced continues to have implications on the health of their offspring even today. On a more encouraging note, the film also highlighted that there are many protective actions that a mother can take to offset the impact of these stressors on their baby’s development, so it is vital that women are educated and empowered to take control of their own personal situation such that they may take affirmative action in the best interests of their health and the wellbeing of their child.
Stress management tools
There are a number of simple stress management tools that women can start implementing into their daily routine before they even conceive. These include breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, yoga and walking. Some women require more supported interventions with a psychologist, and sometimes a psychiatrist, to deal with trauma, anxiety, depression or more serious psychiatric conditions, and I encourage any women with a mental health history to seek the assistance of their treating doctor early to optimise their mental health and minimise complications for both themselves and their baby. There is now growing evidence for the positive impact of mindfulness meditation training programs on the stress levels and birth outcomes for mothers (Duncan L & Bardacke N, 2010; Vieten & Astin, 2008; Beddoe A et al, 2009; Dunn C et al, 2012; Byrne J, 2014; Fisher C, 2012) and their babies (Chan KP, 2014).
So with these facts in mind, it is time to take action to nurture your genes in a way that will affect their nature, that is, how your genes are expressed to create your phenotype and that of your child. For mothers who are considering falling pregnant, already pregnant, or recently new mothers, may I encourage you to take a look at the online program I have developed with my colleague and friend, Sally Gray ND, the Happy Healthy Mums and Bubs Program. In this 8-week, self-guided program, we take you through how to positively influence you and your baby's brain function, gut microbiome, immune system, hormones and overall health and wellbeing. With simple daily exercises and detailed explanations of the underlying scientific principles, you will be empowered to take control of the epigenetic factors that determine your genetic expression and consequently your health.
Duncan L & Bardacke N (2010). Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting Education: Promoting Family Mindfulness During the Perinatal Period. J Child Fam Stud. 19:190-202
Vieten & Astin (2008). Effects of a mindfulness-based intervention during pregnancy on prenatal stress and mood: results of a pilot study. Arch Womens Ment Health. 11:67-74.
Beddoe A, Yang CP, Powell Kennedy H, Weiss SJ, Lee KA (2009). The effects of mindfulness-based yoga during pregnancy on maternal psychological and physical distress. JOGNN. 38: 310-319.
Dunn C, Hanieh E, Roberts R, Powrie R (2012). Mindful Pregnancy and childbirth: effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on women’s psychological distress and wellbeing in the perinatal period. Arch Women’s Ment Health. 15:139-143.
Byrne J, Hauck Y, Fisher C, Bayes S, Schutze R (2014). Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Childbirth Education Pilot Study on Maternal Self-Efficacy and Fear of Childbirth. Journal of Midwifery and Women’s health. 59:192-197.
Fisher C, Hauck Y, Bayes S, Byrne J (2012). Participant experiences of mindfulness-based childbirth education: a qualitative study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 12:126
Chan KP (2014). Prenatal meditation influences infant behaviours. Infant Behaviour & Development. 37: 556-561.