Could it be possible that you’ll live longer if your mother ate green, leafy vegetables when she conceived you? Sound far-fetched? In a study monitoring the population of a village in The Gambia for the past 70 years, it’s been found that children who were conceived during the dry season were up to seven times more likely to die as young adults than those who were conceived during the wet season
In Dr Michael Mosley’s documentary, Nine Months That Made You (Mondays 8.30pm on SBS - watch the first episode below or on SBS On Demand), he travels to The Gambia to report on this research by Britain's Medical Research Council, which has monitored babies there from childhood into old age.
“Scientists have recently shown babies conceived in the dry season have a key gene that’s overactive,” says Dr Mosley says in the series. “Which could make them less able to fight infection. But when a mother eats leafy green veg [which are more available during the wet season] this seems to dampen down this overactive gene.
“At this vital time if a mother eats a diet of rich and leafy green vegetables it provides a cocktail of chemicals which bind strands of DNA and changes forever how some of our genes work.”
Another angle explored by Dr Mosley is the effect the diet we eat now has on our health when compared with the one our mothers ate at the time we were conceived, and during pregnancy. “If a mum’s diet is low in fat, sugar and calories, the baby becomes efficient, extracting as much as it can from very little food,” he says in the third episode of the series. Could problems, such as diabetes, arise when we later eat a diet which is vastly different to our mother’s?
In The Nine Months That Made you, Dr Mosley – who was himself diagnosed with diabetes, before bringing his blood sugar levels under control through diet – talks to two Indian men, Lal and Freddie, who live in the same city, do the same job and eat the same food. And yet one has type II diabetes, and the other does not. Why? “Although we can’t say for sure that Lal’s diabetes is the result of nutrition in the womb, the statistics and the mice studies strongly point in that direction,” Dr Mosley says.
The difference could be down to epigenetics. “This is a new term we’re talking about, whereby you have the same genes as your mother, but they’re turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ in different ways,” Associate Professor Neale Cohen, Director Clinical Diabetes at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, tells SBS. “The mechanics are complicated, but we suspect that certain environmental factors, such as toxins, smoke, plastics and pollution, can turn these genes off, as can the diet and exercise habits [during pregnancy] of our mother.”
“It’s hard to prove the link [between a mother’s diet pre-conception and diabetes] without complicated types of testing, but we’re more concerned about epigenetics now than ever before,” says Associate Professor Cohen. “There’s a race on to see what the mechanisms are, and whether we can change these.”
As says Dr Mosley says: “It really makes you think that you are what your mother eats or at least what she was eating when you were just a tiny little embryo, just a few cells big,”
Michael Mosley Nine Months That Made You, Mondays 8.30pm from November 20 on SBS then on SBS On Demand, is a three-part series that explores, through a series of moving human stories, the journey from conception to birth.
Watch episode 1 here: