From obesity to diabetes, how startling discoveries about the womb are changing the way we think about health.
Women have heard for years all the things that are bad to eat when pregnant, but now we are learning that chocolate may be just what the doctor ordered.
We know childhood diabetes, teenage obesity, chronic depression and heart disease afflict millions of Americans in nearly epidemic proportions. And now, according to Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, we are just starting to learn that those conditions may originate, at least partly, in the womb.
We’ve all heard about the effects of thalidomide exposure and fetal alcohol syndrome, but in recent years, the burgeoning science of “fetal origins” has made some surprising new discoveries about how conditions in the uterus can affect an adult person’s health in the future.
For instance, pregnant women who were close to the Twin Towers on 9/11 and developed post traumatic stress disorder gave birth to babies with low levels of cortisol, a hormone that regulates stress. Women who are depressed while pregnant are likelier to deliver premature babies with low birth weights. These scientific discoveries reinforce the notion that, while a person’s genetic code only offers a template for development, the conditions in the womb fine-tune the expression of those genes. It is the perfect welding of nature and nurture.
Origins investigates the consequences that the nine months of gestation have for infancy, childhood, adulthood and even old age. We get our DNA at the moment of conception, but the way our genes behave and the way they’re expressed, can still be affected by the environment. Now we’re learning that this kind of epigenetic modification, as it’s known, happens most consequentially in the uterus.
And not at all surprising, we are what we eat or you are at least what your mother has eaten 9 months prior to your birth.
The expectant mother should eat fish, making sure it’s low in mercury. And here’s the best part—Moms-to-be should also eat a moderate amount of, you guessed it—chocolate! Chocolate is associated with a reduced risk of preeclampsia (hypertension and related problems during pregnancy).
Expectant mothers should also perform a moderate amount of exercise, because that gives the fetus a workout, too. And, moms and the people around them should help maintain a moderate level of stress because that actually accelerates fetal brain development.
But the bigger message is to keep an open mind. We are constantly learning new information about diet and its effects on our day-to-day lives. It seems that our mothers and grandmothers were correct when they told us “everything in moderation” including a little chocolate in your everyday diet.