Happy Monday! If you didn’t yet have a chance to read my article in yesterday’s Seattle Times, “Oregon researchers: A food revolution to end chronic disease,” please peruse it. The overarching topic, epigenetics, is an important one, because it explains how the genes we inherit from our parents intersect with our environmental influences from the moment of our conception until the day we die.
Of course, as the article makes clear, it’s our environmental exposures in early life (the 1,000 days from conception to age 2), that are most critical. One interesting aspect of this that I didn’t have room to talk about in the article (there is NEVER enough room) is the placenta.
Placental development during pregnancy is a big focus of Kent Thornburg’s work (and David Barker’s before he died in 2013). The reason? How the placenta develops in terms of size, shape and efficiency affects the supply of nutrients to the growing baby.
As I was reading research papers on placental development, what amazed me was that the size and shape of the placenta at birth is actually a “marker” for chronic disease later in life. In other words, particular combinations of size and shape have been shown to predict heart disease, high blood pressure and certain forms of cancer.
Because the placenta starts forming at the beginning of pregnancy, it’s the woman’s nutrition up to that point that affects placental development. This means that a woman’s lifetime nutrition, not just nutrition during pregnancy, is important. It’s also why Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and The Moore Institute are focusing much of their community outreach and public health efforts on girls as well as women.
In a nutshell, a woman’s nutrition up until the point she becomes pregnant can affect the size of her baby, which affect’s that baby’s future adult health in certain ways. Her nutrition during pregnancy doesn’t have as much affect on the baby’s size, but it can “program” the baby’s risk for certain diseases later in life.
Epigenetics and fetal programming are fascinating topics, but can be a little confusing if they are new-to-you topics. I remember how I felt when I first stumbled across the topic several years ago and was trying to slog through research papers. Here are some helpful links (these were also included in the online version of my Seattle Times article):
- Epigenetics (University of Utah’s Learn Genetics site)
- Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (from the Better The Future blog)
- International Summit on the Nutrition of Adolescent Girls and Young Women
And, if you didn’t catch the link with my article, here is Dr. Thornburg’s excellent TEDx Portland talk on “The epidemic of chronic disease and understanding epigenetics”:
In tomorrow’s blog post, I’ll talk more about Bob and Charlee Moore of Bob’s Red Mill, who’s generous donation to OHSU is just the latest chapter in their commitment to promoting good nutrition and philanthropy.Primary sources:
- Barker DJP and Thornburg KL. Placental programming of chronic diseases, cancer and lifespan: A review. Placenta, 2013; 34(10):841-5.
- Barker DJP and Thornburg KL. The obstetric origins of health for a lifetime. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2013; 56(3);511-9