Enter the subject of conception into Google and you will be met with a huge array of articles claiming food can influence your chance of falling pregnant. Foods often talked about include beans, ice cream, leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, whole wheat bread, fruit, yoghurt, salmon and olive oil, which are packed with qualities that can boost fertility.
Healthy eating is a very important part of trying to conceive, not just for women but for men too. A balanced diet helps boost your chances of conceiving, and the sooner you start eating well the more likely you are to get pregnant. Certain vitamins and nutrients such as vitamins C and E, zinc and folic acid can help produce healthy sperm and make your periods easier to predict.
But did you know that healthy eating can not only help you get pregnant; it can also help influence your child’s epigenome (basically what determines your child’s DNA sequence), with lifelong implications?
In recent studies, it has been shown that maternal diet during the pre-conceptional period influences the establishment of DNA in the offspring, with permanent phenotypic consequences. Essentially, a mother’s nutritional state at conception influences the epigenetic carcinogens, which arise after the initial genetic make-up. These epigenetic carcinogens do not in themselves damage DNA, but they can cause alterations to a person’s cells that make them more predisposed to cancer. They can also mark a baby’s DNA in other ways, such as short stature, and underdeveloped organs and limbs.
A typical example of this is the women of rural Gambia, who rely heavily on the consumption of own-grown foods. The annual rainy season coincides with a “hungry season”, when food stocks from the previous year’s harvest are running out and the current year’s crops have yet to be harvested. The swaying of nutrient availability and substrate utilization have long been known to affect foetal growth and development, and their fluctuating nutritional diet can affect the long-term functional outcomes in their children.
Think of it as this – chromosomes and genes contain the blueprint for your physical characteristics, but it’s your parents’ health and diet at the time of conception that affects how your genes are expressed.
How does nutrition affect the way genes are expressed?
During the peri-conception period (the time surrounding the date of conception), the final stages of egg and sperm growth, fertilisation and embryo development are occurring before implantation into the uterus. While this happens, the overall health of the egg, sperm and embryos are highly susceptible to changes in the environment. What you eat can have a major impact.
For the women of rural Gambia, conceiving during the “hungry season” resulted in lower birth weights and their children being small for their gestation age. Not only is the weight effected at birth, it is also affected later in life.
What does this mean?
If you are planning on starting a family soon, it’s important to note that what you eat at the time of conception can affect the long-term health of your child. Potentially, it could affect the long-term health of your grandchild too. A well-balanced diet ensures the best start to life and helps nurture the DNA sequence rather than alter it.