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How Early Life Events Can Alter Genes



Epigenetics is an emerging area of scientific research that shows us how various influences affect the expression of our genes. At the heart of every cell in our body sits DNA which stores codes or information as chemicals, known as the epigenome (1,5).

During development, our unique epigenetic signaturecan determine how genes are expressed(5).The mechanism used by cells to control gene expression vital to embryo development is called DNA methylation. These signals can turn genes on or off. Researchers have linked abnormal DNA methylation to some diseases (7,8).

Our baby’s epigenome can be affected positively or negatively throughout pregnancy andmay determine their susceptibility to heart disease, obesity and cancer (15,5).Epigenetics also plays a major role in developing metabolism, brain architecture and even the behaviour of our offspring (13).


The welfare and health of future generations depends on genetic information, environmental factors and lifestyle. Developing healthy habits can reduce the risk of permanent genetic changes.Your lifestyle during preconception and pregnancy, and of your ancestors can influence your offspring’s epigenome (15,13,5). Enhancing your (and your partners) overall health when you decide to start a family is a good place to start(11, 7).

What you do, eat, feel and experience during pregnancy can impact on the development of your baby, well into the future(10).

Epigenetic research has linked susceptibility to chronic illness later in life with epigenetic disturbances occurring during pregnancy (11,1).This is called fetal programming, which can be triggered by a mother’s poor diet, stress, smoking, pre-existing disease (Diabetes or Hypertension), environmental factors and overall well-being(11).


Although we cannot rewrite the past, we can help build healthier futures.

Optimum lifestyle choices are imperative before and during pregnancy to help minimise any susceptibilities to chronic ill health for you and your baby(6,16). Many epigenetic programmes are laid down during embryonic development. A healthy hormonal and epigenetic relationship is crucial for a good functioning placenta and successful pregnancy(17).

There are important links between dietary patterns and DNA Methylation(1). Cells divide rapidly whilst your baby’s organs are developing and can be altered permanently (11).Childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes have been on the increase, your weight contributes to epigenetic changes (3,15,13).Obesity can impart marks and alter the DNA of your children. Highlighting the importance of maintaining healthy weight and optimum nutrition before and during pregnancy(15, 7).


Although we cannot rewrite the past, we can help build healthier futures.


Requirements for micronutrients increases during pregnancy to support fetal and infant growth (11).Insulin resistance has been found in babies of mothers deficient in some micronutrients and those with gestational diabetes (2,7).

The diet of mothers during pregnancy can modify gene expression and change the way we develop (1,11). 

Adequate vitamin intake during pregnancy supports optimal methylation (1,2,7).

Researchers have identified a group of micronutrients called methyl donors which support epigenetic processes. These include choline, folate, B vitamins and betaine, found in fortified cereals, whole grains and leafy green vegetables (2, 7).

Nutritious diets during pregnancy can help counteract negative effects of toxins and environmental factors like pollution (1).


Our eating habits can directly program the eating habits of our offspring, referred to as fetal programming(11).

Just as the larvae of bees need royal jelly to become Queen Bees, you need nutritious food to grow healthy babies!(14).

Undernourishment during pregnancy can also interfere with your baby’s development and negatively influence epigenetic changes(13).

Suboptimal nutrition resulting from imbalanced diets during pregnancy contributes to, placental inefficiency, growth restriction, susceptibility to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and metabolic disorders (11, 6).


High fat or calorific diets and low protein diets can trigger unfavourable epigenetic patterns making offspring vulnerable to obesity (11,6).

Hyperglycaemia during early pregnancy triggers changes to hormones, your placenta, blood flow and may cause excessive fetal growth(11,6).

Birthweights of babies out of normal range increases susceptibility to hypertension in later life (11).

Epigenetics is partly regulated by enzymes that depend on our diet and gut bacteria, a healthy balanced diet is essential (12, 7).


Ensure optimum nutrition and a diet of:

  • High protein and low-fat.
  • Less red meat, salt and processed food.
  • Low-glycaemic Mediterranean diet including whole fruits, green leafy vegetables, grains, chicken, fish and monounsaturated fats like olive oil (1).
  • Regular meals and snacks.
  • Limit caffeine intake.
  • Stay well hydrated.


  • Food safety and hygiene.
  • Dietary deficiencies are addressed with supplementation of micronutrients; prenatal vitamins (1,12).


How to support a healthy epigenome:

  • Create positive nurturing environments together
  • Keep stress at bay
  • Ensure good mental health (1, 11).
  • Avoid toxins/pollutants, alcohol and drugs
  • Consider pharmaceutical medications carefully (5,16).
  • Stay active
  1. Anderson, B. A., Rooks, J. P., & Barroso, R. (2016). Nutrition and epigenetics in pregnancy. In Best Practices in Midwifery, Second Edition: Using the Evidence to Implement Change (2) 85–107). New York: Springer Publishing Company.https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/lib/newcastle/reader.action?docID=4627940&ppg=87
  2. Best, J. D., & Carey, N. (2013). The Epigenetics of Normal Pregnancy. Obstetric medicine, 6(1), 3–7. https://doi.org/10.1258/OM.2011.110070
  3. Bhupathiraju S.N & Hu F.B. (2016). Epidemiology of Obesity and Diabetes and Their Cardiovascular Complications. Circ Res.118(11),1723-35.
    1. Doi:10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.115306825. PMID: 27230638;PMCID:PMC4887150
  1. Choi, S. W., & Friso, S. (2010). Epigenetics: A New Bridge between Nutrition and Health. Advances in nutrition. 1(1), 8–16. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.110.1004
  2. Dahlen, H., Kennedy, H., Bell, A., Clark, A., Foureur, M., Ohm, J. & Downe, S. (2013). The EPIIC hypothesis: intrapartum effects on the neonatal epigenome and consequent health outcomes. Medical Hypotheses, 80(5), 656-662. https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0306987713000406
  3. Fowles, E. R., & Murphey, C. (2009). Nutrition and mental health in early pregnancy : a pilot study. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 54(1), 73–77. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/doi/10.1016/j.jmwh.2008.07.013
  4. Geraghty, A. A., Lindsay, K. L., Alberdi, G., McAuliffe, F. M., & Gibney, E. R. (2016). Nutrition During Pregnancy Impacts Offspring’s Epigenetic Status-Evidence from Human and Animal Studies. Nutrition and metabolic insights, 8(1), 41–47. https://doi.org/10.4137/NMI.S29527
  5. Gruzieva O, Merid SK, Chen S, Mukherjee, N., Hedman, A.M., Almqvist, C., Andolf, E., Jiang, Y., Kere, J., Scheynius, A., Soderhall, C., Ullemar, V., Karmaus, W., Melen, E., Ashad, S.H. & Pershagen, G. (2019). DNA Methylation Trajectories During Pregnancy. EpigeneticsInsights.2019;12:2516865719867090. doi:10.1177/2516865719867090. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6696836/
  6. Hessler, K., (2013). American Medical Association Journal of Ethics. 15 (9),767-770. State of the Art and Science. Epigenetic Inheritance and the Moral Responsibilities of Mothers.https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/epigenetic-inheritance-and-moral-responsibilities-mothers/2013-09
  7. Hurst, H. M., & Linton, D. M. (2015). Preconception care: planning for the future. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 11(3), 335–340. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2014.09.011 Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/science/article/pii/S1555415514006370
  8. Marciniak, A., Patro-Malysza, J., Kimber-Trojnar, Z., Marciniak, B., Oleszcuk, J. & Leszczy, B. (2017). Fetal programming of the metabolic syndrome. Taiwanese Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 56(2), 133-138. https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/science/article/pii/S1028455917300025
  9. Miro-Blanch, J., & Yanes, O. (2019). Epigenetic Regulation at the Interplay Between Gut Microbiota and Host Metabolism. Frontiers in genetics. 10, 638. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.00638
  10. Santos, M. S., & Joles, J. A. (2012). Early determinants of cardiovascular disease. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 26(5), 581–597. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beem.2012.03.003 Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/science/article/pii/S1521690X1200022X
  11. Shizhao, L., Chen, M., Yuanyuan, L. & Trygve, T. (2019). Prenatal epigenetics diets play protective roles against environmental pollution. Clinical Epigenetics. 11. 10.1186/s13148-019-0659-4.
  12. Sonuga‐Barke, E. J. S. (2010). Editorial: ‘It’s the environment stupid!’ On epigenetics, programming and plasticity in child mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(2), 113–115. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02213.x Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02213.
  13. Taylor, P. D. (2015). Bugs and stress ’on top of genetics’: can the way we are born affect our health? Midwifery, 31(3), 341–344. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2015.01.008 Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0266613815000297
  14. Dean, S.V., Lassi, Z.S., Imam, A.M. et al.Preconception care: nutritional risks and interventions. Reprod Health 11, S3 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-4755-11-S3-S3


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