Foetal Origins in Time Magazine
‘How the first nine months shape the rest of your life’. What could be a better indicator than the arrival of the science of foetal origins on the mainstream stage than a leading article in Time Magazine, published in October 2010?
For those that have been working in this field for some time and others who have been promoting their findings, this kind of highly visual publicity is welcome. Will it be acknowledged by the people that influence antenatal care? That remains to be seen.
What is the science of Foetal Origins?
The article, written by Annie Murphy Paul describes it as “The conditions we encounter in utero…shape our susceptibility to disease, our appetite and metabolism, our intelligence and temperament. In the literature on the subject…you can find references to the foetal origins of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, mental illness…arthritis, osteoporosis and cognitive decline.” Later in the article she adds intelligence, temperament and sanity.
It sounds simple enough; it is now agreed that we are a product of our environment, of the world we live in. Our diet, the people around us, our living conditions are all factors that make up who we are and how we behave. People believe this and our genes map out our life plan; will we be healthy or sickly, live long and happy lives or short, distressed ones?
However, Foetal Origins opens up a new path. It shows our life plan goes even deeper; we are the product of the world our mother lived in. The air pregnant women breathe, the food they eat, the pollutants they are surrounded by and the stimulants the foetus is exposed to all have a lasting effect on the next generation. Those effects last a lifetime. For example, not eating a nutritious diet during pregnancy – be that due to a lack of food or a lack of good food – effects the metabolism of the foetus. So, western babies whose mothers are effectively malnourished because they live on a diet of burgers and chips have babies that are born into a world of plenty but their metabolisms are programmed to cope with a world lacking in nutritious food. Hence a 3 year old can be obese; its metabolism is not geared to cope high levels of sugar, fat and protein that pervade almost all our food.
Added pressure on mothers…
The good thing about this information is that we have an ever greater understanding of how to improve the health of future generations and provide mothers with more accurate information about how to look after themselves and their offspring. For example, research on mice showed that eating vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage during pregnancy can help protect the foetas from cancer in later life, whether or not they themselves eat broccoli or cabbage as they grow older. No longer tell the baby to ‘eat your greens’; tell your wife to battle through her morning sickness and hold down her Popeye devised menu.
However, will some view it as another stick to beat mothers with? Another way of telling mothers how to look after themselves, how to life their lives, how to raise their children before they are even born. Most mothers say that guilt is an inherent part of motherhood, does added pressure about how to effect the next generation in utero make this job easier? “…be vigilant – but never stressed” easy advice for the educated to follow but how to reach those that don’t want to be reached is the eternal endeavour of those in healthcare.
Light at the end of this tunnel was found researching the Pima Indians in Arizona where Type 2 diabetes is extremely common and had been put down to genetics causing despondency among the population who believed they could do nothing about it. However, when told that if they could maintain a particular diet for pregnancy many women responded positively saying they could “do it for nine months if it meant that my baby would have a better chance at a healthy life.” This is positive but not easy; anyone trying to help pregnant women give up smoking (currently a high priority in the NHS) will know that changing lifestyle habits, even for just nine months, is as hard as pulling pulling teeth.
…or important guidance for parents?
The good news is that studies suggest that foetus’ are as responsive to ‘good’ influences as ‘bad’ influences. Therefore a mother who eats healthily in later pregnancies having eaten poorly in earlier pregnancies changes the metabolism of each foetus proving it is not as straight forward as just genetics. Likewise, this knowledge could help reduce the rise in childhood diabetes as well as treat it in adults by asking them about their own birth and understanding more about what the impact of their answer is.
A well known adage says ‘calm mothers have calm babies’, so it has always been known that ‘stressed mothers have stressed babies’. Now we are starting to understand why: Catherine Monk at Columbia University is researching how a pregnant woman’s mental state effects her offspring. In research monitoring the reactions of stressed and calm mothers to mental exercises, the foetus’ of stressed mothers produced their own independent reaction of stress whereas there was no disturbance recorded from the foetus’ of calm mothers. This is important not only because no one wishes to burden a person with a stressed personality but also on the practical front, what parent wants to burden themselves with a stressed newborn; the additional crying, the inability to settle, the effect on feeding and general wellbeing. Parenting is exhausting enough without the added bonus of a child that is easily distressed. More importantly, this can also effect long term mental health such as depression and anxiety, especially if there is a predisposition within the family to it (which would explain in many cases the reason for a stressed pregnancy).
The sadness here is that science has to be used to back up common sense but it does at least give parents ammunition to support what they always knew; stress is not good for anyone and is actually harmful for pregnant women and their babies. HypnoBirthing is an excellent way of taking active steps to de-stress during pregnancy. The philosophy is all about staying calm, reducing the physical and psychological symptoms of stress and helping mother and baby improve both of their health and well being now and in the future.
What does this really tell us?
To me, this shows that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. A whole area of knowledge and understanding that is just being discovered that has wide ranging impacts on individual health and the role of public health. And it all comes down to pregnancy and birth. Yet more reasons to research the area further and treat mothers and babies with renewed care and respect. A greater understanding of the importance of mental and physical well being during pregnancy also supports the role of good antenatal education. Women need to be educated about their choices in pregnancy, information needs to be actively disseminated and the opportunity for discussion about health and personal responsibility needs to be provided. HypnoBirthing is an excellent model for antenatal care; it address the physical and psychological well being of mother and child supporting the whole family to de-stress and stay healthy.
If the Time Magazine article says anything it says that mothers have an even more vital role in shaping the future than was previously fathomed, don’t miss it. And tell your care providers.