Healthy mother = health baby. That’s logical you may say. Well yes, it is logical, but how seriously do we really take this concept?
When a newly pregnant mom–to–be goes to her gynaecologist for the first visit, after all the medical components have been dealt with (BP, iron levels etc.) the total extent of the discussion around Mom’s health is usually, ‘Make sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet, avoid excessive ‘junk’ food’ as we don’t want you putting on excessive weight, avoid smoking, alcohol and sushi, and exercise in moderation’. A prenatal multi-vitamin and extra folic acid are usually recommended as well.
Science, through the study of genomics, is now showing us that our genes are not written in concrete. Rather they are responsive to the environment in which they dwell (Dr Bethany Hays, Prenatal Programing in Adults). This means that once the egg and the sperm meet, the transfer of the genetic material that occurs at that point is not the end of the story. Should the fetus be exposed to a single major, or multiple minor insults, at a particularly vulnerable time in it’s development, serious long term consequences may ensue.
Research is now clearly indicating that optimum maternal health, right down to a micro cellular level is crucial to optimum fetal development and that a less than optimum environment may have serious consequences either early on, or much later in life.
In 1986, David J Barker (1) advanced the idea that long term health begins in the womb. His research seemed to indicate that it was not only ischaemic heart disease, but also diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and depression, that may all have their origin in the womb and may be the result of a less than optimum intra-uterine environment.
As a Functional Nutritionist (functional nutrition is about the understanding of how and why cells communicate with each other and what are the potential factors involved in the prevention of normal healthy inter, and intra, cellular communication) I see many patients complaining that they feel that they are simply not functioning at full potential. They are fatigued, experience mood fluctuations, bowel dysfunction, weight gain, susceptibility to recurring infections, sleep disturbance and the list continues.
On consulting with their physicians a range of blood tests are usually requested that may, or may not, show irregularity. If they do have, for example, raised insulin levels or lowered iron levels the treatment is to prescribe medication to reverse the condition and rarely is an attempt made to ask, ‘why did the body get that way in the first place?’
Asking ‘Why’ is the primary concern of a functional nutritionist.
If no abnormal results are found, then more often than not the diagnosis of stress is made. Very often an antidepressant is prescribed to again suppress the symptoms rather than an attempt being made to assist the patient with the effective management of their stress.
It is now well accepted that our environment plays a major role in our well-being. It also makes sense, then, that preconception is such an important time to ensure that the environment (i.e. the mother) that the fetus arrives into, both physically and mentally is as pristine as possible.
What am I really referring to when I say the mother’s environment?
First, lets briefly discuss the external environment. We are all constantly bombarded by toxins in the air we breathe (pollution), the water we drink (chlorine, xenoestrogens, bacteria) and the foods we eat (antibiotics, growth factors, additives, preservatives).
The constant intake and absorption of these substances from the outside has a direct effect on the mother’s internal environment. Her innate, self – healing capabilities are constantly on ‘alert mode’, trying to maintain homeostasis. This results in the up–regulation of many chemicals trying to manage the internal environment.
Second, coming down to micro level, each and every cell in the body has it’s own internal and external environment, both of which are crucial for optimal inter and intra-cellular communication and hence optimal function.
The mother’s psycho-social-spiritual state has also been found to have a marked effect of fetal development. The mental preparation on the part of both partners has a very profound effect on the way the fetus develops and the likelihood of problems occurring either during or after pregnancy. (2)
In essence, my message in this brief discussion is that I used to think that it was ok to just make a decision to have a baby and that nature would be all you’d have to rely on to ensure that the baby would develop normally and perfectly. That’s definitely what I did with my 2 girls.
My understanding and practice of Functional Medicine now clearly shows that there is so much more that prospective parents can, and in fact should be doing, to ensure both the short term success (fertilization and gestation) and long term successful and healthy development of a child right into adulthood.
It would be so rewarding if prospective parents would take a way more in depth look at what they should be doing to ensure the optimal environment for conception and development of their baby. Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition are the most significant and all encompassing approaches to offering the correct information and guidance to prospective parents and will, I’m sure, in time, become the baseline approach in pregnancy management.
- Barker D, Osmond C. Infant mortality, childhood nutrition and ischaemic heart disease in England and Wales. Lancet. 1986; 1 (8489) 1077- 1081
- Infertility – A Functional Medicine Approach, Dr Bethany Hays (30BF303115FE48BEA9C62FD3540564FA.ashx)