The word "epigenetics" is everywhere these days, from academic journals and popular science articles to ads touting miracle cures. But what exactly is epigenetics, why is it so important, and what effect can it have on family building?
Epigenetics is one of the hottest fields in the life sciences. It’s a phenomenon with wide-ranging, powerful effects on many aspects of biology, and has enormous potential in human medicine. Its ability to fill in some of the gaps in our scientific knowledge is mentioned everywhere1 from academic journals to the mainstream media to some of the less scientifically rigorous corners of the Internet.
A crash course in epigenetics (and why it matters during pregnancy)
Our DNA is not as fixed as you may think. While your DNA is set at birth and does not change (unless mutated), your epigenome is more fluid and affects the way your DNA is expressed.
Epigenetics involves additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters that make up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone's taken a pack of highlighters and used different colors to emphasize different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren't as important.
What you eat, where you live, who you interact with, when you sleep, how you exercise, and even aging can eventually turn those markers on or off (blue highlight, pink highlight). So, the crazy thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime and in response to health and lifestyle changes.
At Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut, we are very focused on preconception health because research shows increased likelihood of pregnancy and healthy conception are associated with healthy lifestyle choices. But what many don’t realize is that research is also showing how your health and lifestyle decisions before conception can negatively or positively affect not just your overall health, but potentially the health of an embryo and the life of a child.
"The greatest expression of epigenetics is the effect a pregnant woman can have on her unborn child."
Epigenetic changes and stress during pregnancy
We are all aware of the stress associated with our daily lives in the New York metropolitan area. Most of us work too much, sleep too little, and don’t eat well enough.
As it turns out, these health and lifestyle choices are affecting all aspects of our lives. I read an article in Vogue magazine called Destiny's Child: A Pregnant Woman's Diet, Exercise Habits, and Environment Could Shape Her Baby's Susceptibility to Disease For Life, written by Elizabeth Weil. It struck me as remarkable that an iconic fashion magazine such as Vogue chose to highlight how choices of diet and exercise in pregnancy affect the health and well-being of the fetus and future child—in essence, the scientific concept of epigenetics.
In fact, perhaps the greatest expression of epigenetics is the effect a pregnant woman can have on her unborn child. In a recent talk by a Stamford Hospital GYN Oncologist with a Master’s degree in Integrative Medicine, the physician discussed how lifestyle choices affect cancer rates and suggested cancer outcomes in women and could be decreased dramatically if we all ate better, achieved a healthy weight, and controlled our stress.
The 90-day window: the effects of lifestyle and nutrition before conception and pregnancy
A better understanding of epigenetics has helped physicians have a better understanding of how your health is not only about taking the right medicine, but also about making the right choices in how you treat your body.
At RMACT, our board-certified reproductive endocrinologists educate patients on the fact that both the egg and sperm have around a 90-day developmental cycle, where they progress from immature follicle into the mature egg and sperm ready for potential fertilization. It is during these critical 90 days that you can positively influence your epigenetics and the expression of the DNA which is set to become your future child. That means as we all try to eat better, relax more, sleep more and make overall better choices, especially during and prior to the 90-day developmental cycle, we not only improve our own health, we also increase our chances of pregnancy and our chances for a healthy child.
Have further questions about epigenetics or other topics? Dr. Leondires would be happy to respond—send them to [email protected].
1 Epigenetics 101: a beginner’s guide to explaining everything, The Guardian: Science, Occum's Corner↩