Nerd Alert: Epigenetics: Protecting your baby starts here....

How our bodies react and how our babies develop is of course down to many factors. Two we know about however are our genetics and our environments. One we can control and the other we cannot! Is it as simple as that? Well the latest research of Epigenetics is indicating that may not be entirely true. Epigenetics looks at something we do have more control over: our environment and how that can impact our genes and most specifically which genes get switched ‘on’ and which get switched’ off’ - pretty cool! In this article we take a big picture look at what this is all about and how it can help you concieve and raise healthy kiddos!

We all have one goal in mind: protecting the development of your baby in our very modern world.

The big question is how much of this can we actually control?

We know of course that our genetics dominates many factors. However, what we are increasingly learning is that not everything comes down to genetics alone and in fact the environment and its interaction with our genes is a very powerful determinant. This is particularly the case at the earliest stages - and particularly when it comes to the development of chronic disease, brain and personality development.

Welcome to the world of Epigenetics: the growing body of research that suggests that a number of chronic modern day illnesses and conditions are a result of a combination of our both our genes and our environment.

As someone very smart once said to me: your genes are the keys on the piano and your environment decides the tune that is played.

So - what can we do?

The first step as always is understanding and awareness. What better place to start than understanding exactly how the modern environment and lifestyle can impact the very earliest of processes - conception and pregnancy.

For me, understanding this was initially pretty scary. The weight of already huge responsibility seemed to get greater. I was worried as we cannot live in a bubble and its not fun being paranoid. However, once I started to understand what the real external risk factors are and how they actually impact development (backed by some brainiac medical research) I started to feel a lot better. After all - its better the devil you know and avoiding some of these things is much easier once you know what it is you should be avoiding.

So - lets get going:
Conception to birth and the first year following is undoubtedly one of the most incredible processes in existence. Think of it this way: you’re starting from single cells, which, over a relatively short space of time, divide and replicate billions of times to form cells, skin, hair, organs and a fully functioning living and breathing person.

When you really think about it, it is totally and utterly mind blowing!

While this is indeed a mind-blowing process, it is also one of the greatest periods of vulnerability. So, ensuring that nothing disturbs this very delicate and intricate process is CRUCIAL to reduce the risk of nasties developing at birth and further down the line.

It gets better; by doing everything you can to ensure this goes smoothly, you are providing the ultimate foundation for potential health going forwards. In terms of prevention. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Of course with the best will in the world not everything is in our control. However, the good news is that it is actually much easier than you think - for the simple reason that there isn't actually anything we need to do other than stay out of the way of the body and let it get on with the job in hand.

The trouble is - that is getting harder to do….

Since the beginning of time our bodies have been growing healthy babies in a masterful way. The trouble is - these days - we do an excellent job of getting in the way of this process. So, the best thing we can do as potential parents is to understand what some of the real current day environmental risk factors are to this process, why and what we can actually do to avoid them.

‘The greater vulnerability of predates, neonates and infants undergoing rapid development is largely because of the delicacy of the billions of instances of mitosis that must be carried out almost flawlessly in order for the developing organism to survive, not to mention achieve a reasonable level of wellbeing’ (2)

Translation: this is the time at which we grow the most rapidly is the time we are most vulnerable. Conception and pregnancy is the point that your genetic code is being expressed forming your organs and brain. This is where Epigenetics comes in. We now know that your entire genetic code is not expressed - certain genes appear to be ‘turned on’ or ‘turned off’ - triggered by our environmental exposures.

‘It was recently demonstrated that environmental factors, such as endocrine disrupting chemicals and mental stress in early life can change epigenetic expression’ (3)

Translation: the environment can impact the way your genes express themselves. Too much disruption can cause significant negatives particularly on the highly complex neurodevelopment side. Once again, it seems no coincidence that we are seeing more and more babies being born with these issues that have been linked to disruption of gene expression:

  • ADHD

  • ASD

  • Hyperactivity

  • Language Delay

  • Asthma

  • Allergies

  • Depression

  • Obesity and Diabetes

  • Premature birth

  • Neural tube defects

  • Neurological disorders more broadly (schizophrenia)

Of course these ‘risk’ factors come in various forms but they often have knock on effects to both physical and mental health and development:

‘A toxic impact resulting in a genetic mutation (s) can modify the regulation of cellular functions throughout….Toxic insults are often pleiotropic [this means they have multiple effects from changes to a single gene]. They are known to impact multiple factors including structural development, hormonal expression, neurotransmitter activity, and essentially all regulative functions connected with our feeling of well- being (or malaise), behavioral and emotional normalcy (versus stress and anxiety), and overall physical health’. (4)

Translation: when we are constantly bombarded by ‘toxins’ it can impact our genes either by mutation or by inducing one gene to express itself over another. A single impact can cause nothing to happen or it can cause multiple effects when it comes to development.

Research is also increasingly revealing that what we do before and during pregnancy makes an impact.

‘These developmental windows [from conception to postnatal] are a time of known neurodevelopmental susceptibility, and it is believed to be exposures during these times that can exert causal influences on developmental disorders.’ (1)

On the neurodevelopmental side if you really want to geek out its worth checking out a paper ‘How “States” become “Traits” (link at the bottom of the article) looking at how very early experiences shape your personality - specifically the impact on the brain of extreme stress or trauma on a child. Now, the chances are if you’re bothering on this site that wont be an issue for you - however - it is interesting to see how sensitive a child’s developing brain is to everything around it and how experiences at a very early stage influence the brain’s development.

So, what are some of these potential risk factors?

First and foremost this is what the entire site is dedicated to (so get stuck in) but just in brief:

We are also learning that these factors impact very early on, during pregnancy. For example studies have shown that mercury from fillings bypasses the placenta and is taken up by the foetus and is also present in breast milk. One of the most common herbicides (Glyphosate) similarly has shown up in breast milk. Alarmingly Seneff et al point to research showing that one in six babies in the US already have a sufficient body burden of mercury to cause neurological impairment!!

According to a review of an extensive number of studies looking specifically at environmental impacts on babies (by Kalkbrenner, Schmidt and Penlesky) it was found that lead and mercury have strong and consistent evidence of harming the developing nervous system, leading to factors such as loss of IQ points and behavioral problems. Other metals, including arsenic, fluoride, and manganese, are increasingly recognized as also being human neurodevelopmental toxicants. These health impacts are not restricted to high-exposure scenarios, but have been seen with typical exposure levels, leading to “silent toxicity.”

‘Metals cross the placenta and the blood–brain barrier, accumulate in developing brains, and interact directly at the cellular level through a variety of mechanisms’. (5)

In terms of endocrine disruption the importance of the hormonal balance of the mother is key as alluded to by Lyall, Schmidt and Hertz-Picciotto:

‘the foetus depends on maternal thyroid hormones during early gestation, as they regulate neuronal growth, cell migration and differentiation [in the brain].’ (5)

Pesticides are a known source of endocrine disruption. Both heavy metals and Pesticides can pass through the placenta and blood-brain barrier. (6) So limiting your own exposure to pesticides and heavy metals before and during pregnancy is a very smart first step. Click on each to learn more - and here for one of my favourite low cost ways of avoiding pesticides.

Air Pollution is a tricky one. Certain emissions from vehicles are generally better controlled these days, however, the sheer number of chemicals in our environment has certainly increased. Some air pollutants are known to induce oxidative stress and cause a systemic inflammatory reaction (click here for a reminder why inflammation is not what you want). Fetuses can be exposed to the chemical constituents of the air pollutant itself (e.g. metals) and also to the elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines (or other resultant biologic factors) in the mother’s own circulation. ‘Given the chemical and physical complexity of air pollutants, some likely cause additional pathophysiologies that have not yet been fully explored, such as epigenetic alterations.’

Interestingly - if you want to really go in to the detail (at the risk of driving yourself mad which I do not encourage) - various studies show that you need to be wary of different risks at different times during your pregnancy. For example when it comes to air pollution research has suggested that the evidence was stronger for exposures in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy and the 1st year of life compared to in earlier pregnancy and that early pregnancy may be a period of susceptibility to pesticides. (7) I however think that is taking it a bit far, I think the real message here is that it is really worth taking extra care of yourself and knowing what to avoid pre conception, during pregnancy and particularly supporting the very first years of a baby’s development.

How do we put ourselves in a better position?

Being aware of the pitfalls and avoiding too much onslaught (where you can) is all it takes to put yourself in a better position and even little changes can make a difference. So welcome to the site - this is exactly what I intend to help you do.

A few practical links to get you started:

Footnotes and article links:

  1. KALKBRENNER AE, SCHMIDT RJ, PENLESKY AC: Environmental Chemical Exposures and ASD: A Review of the Epidemiological Evidence: Current Problems in paediatric and adolescent health care. 2014. Nov: 44(10): 277-318

  2. KENNEDY D, SENEFF S, DAVIDSON RM, OLLER JW, HALEY BE, MASTERS RD: Environmental Toxicants and Infant Mortality in the USA. Open Journal of Biological Sciences. 2016

  3. KUBOTA T, MOCHIZUKI K: Epigenetic Effect of Environmental Factors on Autism Spectrum Disorders: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2016 May: 13(5): 504.

  4. KENNEDY D, SENEFF S, DAVIDSON RM, OLLER JW, HALEY BE, MASTERS RD: Environmental Toxicants and Infant Mortality in the USA. Open Journal of Biological Sciences. 2016

  5. LYALL K, SCHMIDT RJ, HERTZ-PICCIOTTO I: Maternal lifestyle and environmental risk factors for ASD: International Journal of Epidemiology. 2014 Apr: 43(2): 443-464

  6. KALKBRENNER AE, SCHMIDT RJ, PENLESKY AC: Environmental Chemical Exposures and ASD: A Review of the Epidemiological Evidence: Current Problems in paediatric and adolescent health care. 2014. Nov: 44(10): 277-318

  7. KALKBRENNER AE, SCHMIDT RJ, PENLESKY AC: Environmental Chemical Exposures and ASD: A Review of the Epidemiological Evidence: Current Problems in paediatric and adolescent health care. 2014. Nov: 44(10): 277-318


This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.