Friday, October 08, 2010

Dear Mom. An Insight From the Womb

In school we learned that we are shaped primarily by our genes and the environment we grow up in. There is now a third aspect that shapes us. Believe it or not, researchers are finding indications that obesity, diabetes and mental illness among adults are all related in part to what happened in the womb decades earlier.

One indication of whether an adult would suffer from heart disease half a century after they were born is birth weight. Yes, scrawny babies are more likely to suffer from heart problems in middle age. Skeptic? Yes, so was everyone else. When that study was first published in 1989, there was plenty of disbelief. As we know, the fetal period is imperative for the babies' health later on. It also affects physiology decades later.

In studies conducted by researchers, the most striking finding is that poverty repeats itself because of a stressful uterine environment. What this means is that pregnant women who live in low-income areas are exposed to chemicals, toxins, pesticides, depression, anxiety, and pollution. In addition, they may be more likely to smoke or drink and less likely to eat healthy, take vitamin supplements, and ensure a proper pregnancy environment.

The result is children that start life at a disadvantage may be a part of the cycle of poverty. Children who face stress before birth appear to have "lower educational attainment, lower incomes and worse health throughout their lives ("

Need proof?

"Stress in mothers seems to have particularly strong effects on their offspring, perhaps through release of cortisol, a hormone released when a person is anxious. Studies show that children who were in utero during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 were more likely to have schizophrenia diagnosed as adults. And The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Chinese born during the terrible famine from 1959 to 1961 were twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as those born at other times.

As for obesity, Ms. Paul describes several British scientists who fed pregnant rats junk food: doughnuts, marshmallows, potato chips and chocolate chip muffins. The offspring of those rats turned out to have a sweet tooth as well: they were more likely to choose junk food when it was offered and ended up 25 percent fatter than rats whose mothers were fed regular rodent chow ("

Although there is significant research yet to conduct on this topic, there are precautions we can take. Keeping pregnant women out of areas that are highly polluted, are surrounded by toxins, and radiation exposure will help ensure the well-being of the child even before we have tested this for safety.

-Shereen Alibhai