We all inherit a unique set of chromosomes from our parents. And it’s these genes that determine everything from the color of our eyes to how good at running we might be. Our genes also help determine our future health and the kinds of conditions we might be more susceptible to as we get older. But genes don’t tell the whole story.
Scientists now know that certain genes are switched on or off depending upon environmental factors – a field of science known as epigenetics (from the Greek ‘in addition to genetics’).
Your baby begins life as a single cell with unique DNA. During pregnancy, this cell will divide into new cells, which divide again, and again – a process that will be repeated many millions of times throughout your child’s life. The DNA of all of these newly created cells will be identical, but the behavior of these cells – meaning how the body reads this “blueprint” – will depend on epigenetic processes.
In fact, recent research suggests that just 25% of your baby’s lifelong health is purely predetermined by genetics. This means that up to 75% can be positively influenced by the interaction of those genes with your lifestyle; for example by avoiding smoking or stress, eating a well-balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight. The extent to which nutrition impacts the future health of a child in this way forms the basis of Early Life Nutritional Programming (ENP) research.
You can influence your baby’s future health by eating a healthy and balanced diet, and following a healthy lifestyle. When planning a pregnancy, it is also recommended to start taking a supplement containing folic acid/folate, a key vitamin to support important functions relevant for pregnancy.* The nutritional requirements for folate are increased throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding, which is why a folate supplement (alongside a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle) can be helpful to support your special folate needs. It is recommended that you start taking this, at least one month before conception. It’s reassuring to know you can make a difference to your baby’s future by paying attention to your nutrition – because good health is the most precious gift of all.
* Folate contributes to maternal tissue growth, cell division and blood formation. Supplemental folic acid intake increases maternal folate level. Low maternal folate level is one of the risk factors in the development of neural tube defects in the developing foetus. Therefore it is recommended that women should take 400µg supplemental folic acid daily over a period of at least one month before and up to three months after conception. The association between low maternal folate status as an important risk factor for neural tube defects has been scientifically proven. Apart from this, other factors, such as hereditary factors, can also increase the risk of neural tube defect.