From Leadership:

Why are some people predisposed to being anxious, overweight or asthmatic? Why are some of us prone to heart attacks, diabetes or high blood pressure? You may say it’s our genes. Or our childhood experiences: How we were treated especially during those crucial first three years. Or maybe our well-being stem from lifestyle choices we make as adults, like our diet and how much exercise we get.

But what about your life in the womb? The nutrition you received; the pollutants, medicines and infections you were exposed to; your mother’s health, stress and state of mind while she was pregnant with you – pioneers in the controversial field of fetal origins say these factors shaped you as a baby – and for the rest of your life.

They assert the nine months in the womb permanently influence the wiring of the brain, the functioning of organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas, how prone we are to disease, our appetite and metabolism, our intelligence and temperament.

Much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life – the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to, even the emotions she feels – are shared with her fetus. It incorporates these into its own body, making them part of its flesh and blood.

Research on fetal origins, also called the developmental origins of health and disease, is prompting revolutionary shifts in thinking about where human qualities come from and when they develop.

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Two decades ago, a British doctor named David Barker noticed an odd . pattern on a map: The poorest regions  of England and Wales had the highest rates of heart disease. But heart disease was supposed to be due to a sedentary lifestyle and rich food?
After comparing the health of 15,000 adults with their birth weights, he discovered an unexpected link between small birth size, often an indication of poor prenatal nutrition, and heart disease in middle age.

Dr Barker theorized that when a fetus does not get enough nutrition, it diverts nutrients to the brain, while skimping on other parts of its body. This shows up in later life as a weaker heart.

When he presented his findings to colleagues, he was mocked. “Heart disease was supposed to be all about
genetics or adult lifestyle,” says Dr Barker, now 72, and a professor at the University of Southampton in  England and at Oregon Health and Science University. “People scoffed at the idea that it could have anything to do with intrauterine experience.”
For years, the idea was just known as the Barker hypothesis. But in time, it began to win converts. Dr Janet Rich-Edwards, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston analysed findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-running investigation of more than 120,000 nurses in the US.

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The good news is that fetal researchers are also finding out that life in the womb can make things go better for your child in later life.

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Take your weight. Two studies by researchers at Harvard Medical School suggest your mother’s weight affects  yours. One study found that the more weight a woman gains during pregnancy, the more likely her child is to be overweight by age three.

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“The bodies of the children conceived after their mothers had weight-loss surgery process fats and carbohydrates in a healthier way than the bodies of their brothers and sisters  who were conceived at a time when their mothers were still overweight,” says John Kral, a professor of surgery and medicine and a co-author of both papers.

“It may be the intrauterine or womb environment is more important than genes or shared eating habits in passing on a tendency to be obese,” says Professor Kral. If that’s so, helping women maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy may be the best hope for stopping obesity before it starts.

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How does air pollution affect a baby in the womb? More than 30 years ago, [Upstream Contributor] Dr. Frederica Perera, the director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University, was researching air pollution and cancer in adults. “I was looking for control subjects to compare to adults. I wanted individuals completely untouched by pollution,” she says.

She decided to use babies just out of the womb as her controls. So she sent samples of umbilical-cord blood and placental tissue to a laboratory to be analysed. When she got the results back, “I was shocked. These samples already had evidence of contamination.”

More.

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