How Pregnancy Shapes a Child’s Health

By Daniel Stickler M.D. | Articles

As an embryo develops during pregnancy, the developing DNA is susceptible to change. While the actual DNA received from each parent is set in stone, the expression of the DNA is fluid and can be impacted by the mother’s diet, environment, and experiences. Is it possible to maximize this time to give your future children the best possible outcome for health? Epigenetic science tells us that yes, this is not only true for impacting the health of your future child, it can also impact the health of future generations. Understanding this impact at the generational level means there is much greater responsibility, than most consider,  to maintain a healthy lifestyle while pregnant.

Coping with Stress

Pregnancy and childbirth can be physically and emotionally stressful for mothers. The ability for the mother to remain relaxed and manage stress optimally has a significant impact on the expression of genes related to activation of the HPA (hypothalamic, pituitaty, adrenal) axis, the stress axis, and release of neurotransmitters that induce calm states of mind.

Examples from the research:

  • Glucocorticoid receptor proteins are increased in children when the mother had low levels of stress during pregnancy which allows those children to cope with everyday stress more effectively.
  • Perinatal stress in the mother has been shown to impact gene expression for a host of stress related genes – cortisol receptors (NR3C1) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)
Perinatal stress in the mother has been shown to alter expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor, a gene involved in memory, learning, stress response, and attention. Click To Tweet
  • Maternal depression has been shown to lead to alteration in methylation patterns of the NR3C1 gene as well.

Diet & Health

Women are encouraged to eat a diet full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and protein, for a good reason. The more nutrients women consume during pregnancy, the greater the chance the child will develop at a steady and healthy rate.

Folic acid and B-12 are connected to different methyl groups which can alter gene expression. Countless nutrients impact other health risks and gene expression which can increase or reduce the risk of developing issues such as obesity, diabetes, neurodevelopmental delays, behavioral patterns, or cardiovascular disease.

Many women are supplemented with vitamins rich in folate as well as B vitamins and the form of these nutrients are important and specific for the woman’s individual genetics. Some women carry genetic variants that can create negative health consequences for their child when supplemented with the wrong form of folate or B vitamins.

A quality well-selected multivitamin is important. Additionally, it is important to consider choline status as this can have an important impact on the developing fetus. One study showed processing speeds were significantly faster for the children of expectant mothers who consumed 930 mg/day when compared with the group that took only 480 mg/day. A good bioavailable form is difficult to find in most multivitamins so consideration of a highly available one such as alpha-GPC is important.

Nutrient quality also impacts the IGF-1 gene. When nutrition is deficient, the child has an increased risk of being born lighter and shorter. During development, the child could be at risk for insulin sensitivity and impaired metabolism.

Nutritional quality of macronutrients is another consideration.

“Imbalances in fatty acid intake during pregnancy and lactation may result in permanent changes in appetite control, neuroendocrine function and energy metabolism in the fetus, leading to metabolic programming.”

Do fatty acids affect fetal programming? J Health Popul Nutr. 2015; 33: 14

Dietary fat intake of more healthy fats like omega-3 and MUFA (especially extra virgin olive oil) not only provides a healthy environment, it is also nutrigenomically active in altering gene expressions in a positive way.

Obesity Risk

Obesity is a growing epidemic in our society. There is abundant access to nutrient-poor calories. The lifestyle and BMI of the mother before, during, and after pregnancy can influence a child’s risk of becoming obese or developing diabetes.

When a mother is over-nourished during pregnancy the child’s risk for becoming obese, developing high blood pressure, and diabetes increases significantly. If the mother has a high BMI before or post-pregnancy, the risk for obesity is also increased.

Women who have been diagnosed with diabetes before or during pregnancy have children born with increased susceptibility to diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol. Interestingly, children of severely undernourished women face the same risks for obesity but also have a higher likelihood of immunity issues.

Nutritional Memory

The availability of nutrition for previous generations can have a ripple effect on the health of subsequent children and grandchildren. Studies have been conducted with families that have experienced times of starvation and abundant food supplies.

Families with a history of starvation showed a more favorable outcome in the health of future generations concerning healthy weight and longevity. Children of mothers that had an abundant food supply growing up were at increased risk for obesity and short life spans.

The effects of nutritional memory can also be seen concerning the mother’s health habits. When a mother consumes a traditional American diet high in saturated fat, omega-6, and processed foods, male children have an increased risk of obesity. Those with mothers consuming a leaner diet were less susceptible to becoming obese across their lifespan.

Adoption studies have validated these finding. Children born to obese parents, but raised by lean parents on a healthy diet were at increased risk to become obese once they reached adolescence and adulthood.

Environmental Factors

Exposure to environmental toxins and pollution during pregnancy can lead to increased risk for allergies and asthma due to epigenetic mechanisms. The variety of pollutants in our environment are numerous and can include gas fumes, air particles, cleaning products, alcohol, and cigarette smoke.

There are also many endocrine disrupting chemicals that mothers can be exposed to during pregnancy – VOC, PBC, phthalates, and organotoxins. These can result in abnormal hormone production not only for the child, it also affects subsequent generations leading to altered hormone levels and infertility.

Exercise & Mental Health

Emotional Reactions

The amygdala is activated when people experience fear and anger. The way the individual responds to these emotions can be connected to how their parents reacted to them during their lifetime before conception. Click To Tweet

Fear and anger cues can result in healthy stress response or be exaggerated and lead to a high state of activation. Individuals with an exaggerated response have lower levels of oxytocin in their system, and their emotional processing is affected. They may have a more challenging time with bonding, socialization, maintaining relationships, body image or impulse control.

The disrupted brain state has been linked to DNA methylation at the oxytocin receptor. Reduced oxytocin can be found in children with depression, psychological disorders, eating disorders, and autism.


While the DNA passed along to the child is determined at the time of conception, the mother can take steps to influence the expression of the DNA both before, during, and after pregnancy. Click To Tweet Once the woman decides to become pregnant, she can take measures to improve her physical and mental health along with limiting exposure to toxins and pollutants.

Each step the woman takes to improve her health has a two-fold benefit as it will also increase the chances of having a healthy child. Seeking the help of an epigenetic coach could help women learn about their genetic markers and how to optimize their habits, diet, and exercise to pass along the best gene expression to their future children.

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Daniel Stickler M.D.

Daniel L. Stickler, M.D. is the medical director and Co-Founder of Apeiron ZOH Corporation.He is the visionary pioneer behind systems-based precision performance medicine, a new paradigm that re-defines medicine from the old symptoms based disease model to one of limitless peak performance in all aspects of life. A physician to high-performing executives and entrepreneurs who want to upgrade their current state, he’s also an author, speaker, blogger and podcaster. He is a Google consultant for wearable technology, epigenetics, and AI in healthcare and a guest lecturer at Stanford University on Epigenetics in Clinical Practice.
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