Understanding epigenetics and why it matters for your conception


“The scientific knowledge derived from genetics, epigenetics, and neuroscience, should be used to enhance the power of meditation and to eliminate the sufferings of humanity.”

Amit Ray, Yoga The Science of Well-Being




I love this area of research.


I learned of epigenetics a while back, before I became a birth doula. This research has played a huge role in my commitment to educating and opening up conversations about the preconception period of becoming a parent.


I am in no way an expert or researcher in this space. Merely just fascinated by it and how it interplays with the decisions we may make prior to conceiving. I have added many resources at the end of this post where you can read more about epigenetics from the experts. Below is a very swift and rough outline of epigenetics, as much is yet to be discovered and the complexity of it (and the language alone) would take hours to read through.


So, what the heck is epigenetics?


You may of heard of terms such as intergenerational trauma and predispositions to mental or physical health conditions. These sorts of things become evident when we are looking at epigentics. We are told our genes are set in stone, and some are. However, epigenetic study has revealed that certain genes can be swtiched 'on' or 'off' based on external environmental causes.


This switching 'on' or 'off' of genes can be inherited by our children, predisposing them to certain behaviours, traumas, health conditions or tendencies.



 

“The study of epigenetics offers us great hope in the reality that we are not victim to the genes we were born with, but instead the choices we make, the things we eat, the way we think, the actions we make, and the ways we choose to live our lives actually matter and make a difference in the expression of our genes”.

- Dr. Sara Oconnell

 

Intergenerational trauma is an insightful field of study that showcases epigenetics and how this is played out through generations. Studies on intergenerational trauma began with the offspring of Holocaust survivors. From there, many studies have been done around World Wars, famine, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and abuse... to name a few, how these have impacted the parents and the resulting effects in their children. Below are some examples of studies (see the resources for full links to studies):


  • Child PTSD was found to occur in association with paternal PTSD in a study of Australian Vietnam Veterans

  • Studies through the Dutch famine showed that exposure to famine during pregnancy had biological and behavioural effects on grandchildren, demonstrating that the epigenetic changes occurs throughout generations

  • Studies also showed that women who experienced the Dutch famine during their first trimester had daughters who had a higher risk for both schizophrenia and breast cancer as adults. These studies showed the low-nutrient diet occuring in second trimester was associated with a high rate of lung and kidney problems in the child

  • The notion that eggs may be affected by preconception trauma is consistent with findings in Holocaust offspring in association with maternal age of exposure during the Holocaust

  • Several studies have shown environmental exposures in males such as famine, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumptopm, toxin exposure and high stress, result in subsequent behavioural and biological effects in their children

  • There is very compelling data suggesting that exposure to extreme stress in males can affect brain, behaviour and sperm in the next generation

  • An interesting study on male mice showed that fear conditioning via odour and shock treatment was passed on to their offspring as they showed similar behaviours and changes in the brain to the odour they had not been previously conditioned to fear

  • Mothers who were pregnant and had to flee the World Trade Centre during the 9/11 attack, and where these mothers developed PTSD, their children showed evidence of anxiety and behavioural disturbances years later, compared to the mothers who did not develop PTSD


I could go on... and it is very easy to jump online and read the many studies that have been done in this area and the conclusions drawn from them.


I recently listened to a podcast on epigenetics and the health of our children, the guest speaker had a great analogy for understanding epigenetics:


"We can be thought of as a library, the genes are the books in a library, and epigenetics is which book is removed from the shelf to be read."




Why should we learn about this before having our children?


A lot of the examples and studies done around epigenetics and intergenerational trauma is based on severe, uncontrollable events such as a worldwide pandemics, wars, natural disasters.... things that we on an individual level do not have control of. So how can we mititage the impact of these external stressors?


These studies have shown that there are two critical times during the periconception (6 months before conception up to 10 weeks gestation) period where reprogramming occurs. We therefore, have the opportunity to take hold of these periods and provide a supportive environment to 'reset' these gene expressions.


  1. The first period of reset is during gametogenesis (production of sperm for males and eggs for females)

  2. The second is just after fertilization


Therefore, to pass on these epigenetic expressions onto the next generation, the affected DNA would have to survive these resets. This information allows us to take some responsibility of supporting our unborn child to live the healthiest and happiest life they possibly can.



 


Are you still with me?


We obviously cannot control everything that happens around us, and I hope to avoid stressing YOU out throughout this post and placing responsibility that all must be perfect to be the best parent to your future children. Instead, what I hope you take away from this is that the time preparing for conception, the years before, the way in which we intentionally invite a child into our life MATTERS.


There is incredible value in preparing, in consciously concieveing your children. Beyond the predisposition to health conditions and behavioural tendencies, by preparing for pregnancy you are setting yourself up in the best possible way, to gain everything this experience may offer you.


Not only can you look back through the generations to understand what you may have inherited, but you are looking forward at-least 3 generations and considering what you may be passing on.


On an individual level, this may not seem significant.

Mental health conditions? We have professionals to help with this

Disease predisposition? Our modern medicine is as advanced as it has ever been


However, on a collective scale, to reduce the number of intergenerational trauma and its ongoing manifestations, could do wonders for the world, the way we approach living, the way we approach loving ourselves, one another and our planet.


Please, place energy and time in your preconception.


References and resources

The Relevance of Epigenetics to PTSD: Implications for the DSM-V (nih.gov)

It’s not ALL in the genes—the role of epigenetics - Curious (science.org.au)

Transgenerational Trauma Effects: The Role of Epigenetics – cttjournal

Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms (nih.gov)

Epigenetic Influences During the Periconception Period and Assisted Reproduction - PubMed (nih.gov)

Epigenetic Preconception Research - Dr. Sara O'Connell (drsaraoconnell.com)

The preconception environment and sperm epigenetics - PubMed (nih.gov)

Parenting, Pregnancy, and Epigenetics | What is Epigenetics?



 

With a special interest in natural fertility, conscious conception and conscious relating through starting a family, I offer Birth Doula and related services to encourage more depth and awareness in your journey. I educate on the menstrual cycle and encourage women to reawaken their confidence and trust in their bodies, and show an understanding of how all of these experiences are interrelated and must be considered on your journey to starting a family.


To get in touch, email me at:


intuitivebirth@outlook.com or visit my social pages:




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