Your obstetrician advises you about the dangers of drinking and taking certain medications, but has your doctor warned you not to fight with your spouse?
As Adam Wolfberg from the Huffington Post reports, your stress could permanently alter your child’s brain and lead her to respond inappropriately to stressful situations forever.
German psychologists recently discovered that pregnant women dealing with serious stress during their pregnancy had an abnorma pattern on the DNA coding for a stress steroid receptor.
The researchers studied a group of children, ages 10-19, and their mothers. They asked the mothers if they had been the victims of partner violence during or around the time of their pregnancy. Then they studied the DNA methylation in the children of a particular region of the genetic code that specifies the glucocorticoid receptor, a regulator in the stress axis. More than a decade after their birth, the children of women exposed to partner violence during their pregnancy had more DNA methylation of this receptor than children whose mothers had not been exposed to partner violence. Interestingly, children born to women exposed to partner violence before or after their pregnancy (but not during their pregnancy) did not have increased methylation.
This isn’t the first time researchers have connected the dots between in utero stressors and altered DNA. Check this out. Adults who were in the womb during the Dutch Famine in ’44 have a high rate of coronary artery disease, obesity and a bunch of other health problems. Isn’t that crazy? British epidemiologist, David Barker, came up with a theory, proven in subsequent experiments that fetuses “adapted to nutritional deprivation during pregnancy by modifying their genome in a process termed epigenetic modification, to survive on less.” Their metabolism slowed and their little bodies did what they needed to do to survive such harsh conditions. But once they were born these adaptations become bad. Their slowed metabolism led to obesity which led to coronary artery disease and diabetes.
So while women are used to changing their diet and what they put into their bodies while pregnant, do they actively try to modify their stress levels? Probably not, yet that stress may affect the baby just as much as what they physically put into their bodies. But, as Wolfberg asks, “Are we ready to “blame” mothers for their psychological health during pregnancy if their child ends up a basket case?”
Wolfberg points out that “connecting these dots may be a bit of a leap — there’s a world of difference between the stress of a job and the unpredictable horror of an abusive relationship” and asked Tufts University School of Medicine psychiatrist Vivian Halfin for clarification. She says the German study is too small to warrant major sociological conclusions and hopes that any woman dealing with significant stress would seek help.
Nonetheless, the concept of intense stressors actually altering your baby’s DNA is fascinating and may provide that extra push that women in violent relationships may need to get out and get help.