Saturday, April 23, 2011

Building Better Babies (or, Things I Wish My Mom Had Known)

This is a really atypical post for me since I usually have my posts (sort of) planned, but I just finished reading this excellent article from The Healthy Skeptic (one of my favorite websites!) called Health Begins In The Womb And Before. I couldn't resist doing a post on the topic since I find it so fascinating! I'm loving reading articles about nutrition and gene expression, esp. relating to fertility and pre/post natal nutrition. Plus, I have a lot of friends who have recently had babies, so it's sort of been in my face, lately.
The Healthy Skeptic also did a great podcast on pre/postnatal and breastfeeding nutrition recently.

I'm not planning on having children yet, but if/when I do, I want to be as prepared as possible and I'm relieved to have this info BEFORE the fact since I feel like I need all the help I can get. I feel like I got the short end of the stick, genetically speaking, and I hope to do better for my offspring.

Let me tell you a little more about why I'm so obsessed with fertility/prenatal nutrition:

I was born right outside of Detroit (not the most pristine area) and both of my parents worked in the auto industry at the time (can you say "chemical exposure"!?) My mom was a smoker when I was conceived. Thank goodness she stopped as soon as she found out she was pregnant with me! She also worked at a factory installing kitchens in custom vans up until her sixth month of pregnancy (can you say carpet glue and particle board fumes? Lots of healthy formaldehyde and maybe some flame retardants there!) My dad worked on the line at Chrysler and he smoked, too. So, both of them were probably fairly toxic at the time. Not ideal for making a super healthy baby.

I was born very jaundiced and spent the first few days of my life in an incubator. I'm pretty sure the jaundice was due to low vit. D levels (fairly common in newborns) but I suspect that the low D was likely due to Vitamin D Receptor Gene Polymorphism, which is linked to Hashimoto's (which I, as well as my mom and sis, have) and plays a big role in the body's ability to manufacture and absorb vit. D and use it to modulate the immune system via Regulatory T Cell production.

I was also born with a rare congenital vascular disorder called Klippel-Trenauany Syndrome (KTS). In most cases, KTS is not thought to be genetic. I'm the only one in my family with it.
In my case, my left leg has twice as many veins as my right and has a "birthmark" of spider veins running the outer length. As far as severity goes, I'm on the low end of the spectrum, thank goodness, because KTS can be debilitating, resulting in amputations in the worst cases. That's not to say that it's been a walk in the park- I had to have major knee surgery when I was 14 to remove large vascular clusters that were backing up with blood and causing my leg so much pain that I couldn't walk.

It puts me at higher risk for blood clots/embolisms and also puts me into the "high risk pregnancy" category. Hormone surges like those during pregnancy and puberty increase symptoms for some reason. My symptoms were the absolute worst from age 11-14 when I went through my major growth spurts (I pretty much maxed out, height-wise by age 14) and then again at 26 when I freakishly grew an inch (I was already 5'8"! WTF?) and my leg flared up severely for a week. In fact, I'm having a minor flare up of symptoms right now and when I wake up in the morning, I have to gingerly hoist my leg out of the bed to get on my feet. It will pass probably within a week, though I have no idea what triggers the smaller flare-ups. I better not be growing again;-)

So, you can see why I'm fascinated with gene expression. Why did mine go so wrong? What can I do to help prevent whacked out gene expression in my offspring? What I can do is eat as conscientiously as possible, consuming foods that support fertility and fetal development. Even if I choose not to have children, these foods are going to promote health. Another thing: my mom didn't plan me, so she wasn't prepared. A surprisingly high number of pregnancies, even among married couples, are not planned, which is even more reason to have your diet dialed in, just in case (I know a girl who happened to be in that teeny failure rate sliver for the Pill and now she has a lovely kindergartener!)

I recently listened to a couple of podcast interviews with my new hero, Dr. Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition (which is the next book I'm getting). Dr. Cate studied epigenetics, as well as ethnobotanical medicine (a woman after my own heart!) and traditional diets. She talks about what she calls genetic momentum and genetic wealth. George Burns is a good example of genetic momentum- someone whose strong genetics let them live to a ripe old age despite some, um, less than healthy habits. George may also have possessed some of the longevity genes that have been identified among certain European Jewish populations.

Genetic wealth is proper physical development: things like facial symmetry, good fertility, delayed aging, proportional limbs, good dental development, etc. Grace Kelly and Daniel Dae Kim (of Lost), with their symmetrical, well developed bone structure, are good examples of genetic wealth (or should I say, genetic jackpots?)

Dr. Cate subscribes to Weston Price's observations about human development. She even talks about how having children close together can shortchange the second child genetically, because it takes the mother's body several years to fully rebuild nutrient stores after pregnancy. How interesting is that?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the first month after giving birth (the "postnatal confinement") is considered a very important time to actively rebuild strength, blood quality, qi and nutrient stores by feeding the new mother special foods. Black Chicken soup is one of those foods. I recently made a friend of mine a big batch with extra herbs like nettles, goji, dong quai and fennel to eat after giving birth.

Here are Dr. Cate's podcasts with Underground Wellness:

Even though we don't have complete control of everything that goes on with our bodies and genes or how our children turn out, it's cool to think that if I eat right, maybe my kid won't get my overbite and need braces. Maybe they will have a more symmetrical (and thus more photogenic) face than me. Maybe they won't have to spend the first three days of their life in an incubator. They're likely to be tall (my siblings and I all have the "tall" gene from our Dutch side and my husband is also tall) and I'm pretty sure they'll have my chin dimple, because NO ONE in my family escapes that trait (and I wouldn't want them to!)



  1. Very interesting stuff. Thanks for the lovely comments about our book! Luke S.

  2. You're welcome, Luke!
    I'm so glad that you and Cate are doing the important work you're doing (and that's an understatement!) It's badly needed (lest we continue on the path of creating generations of deformed and mutant children...)

  3. Hi Erin,
    See, it works! If you hadn't commented on my blog today I would have never found yours. You are Primal and I'm Paleo, but our thoughts are pretty much the same. Nice post and great blog! I bookmarked you and will be back!

  4. I identify a lot with what you said. I'm not planning on kids any time soon, but I want my body to be ready when I do. One side of my face is bigger than the other,too (my parents thought they were going to have to get it fixed since once nostril was noticeably bigger at birth, but it evened out to not be too prominent). There are a lot of health issues in my family, so I want the best possible outcome for my not-yet-a-twinkle-in-my-eye future children, which I'm coming to realize comes from me being healthy long before I ever conceive. Although, I don't advertise to my friends that I'm researching primal prenatal nutrition lest they get the wrong idea, me being unmarried and definitely not pregnant ;)

  5. Patience, I'm going to be doing a post on epigenetic orthodontics soon, which can potentially help to correct asymmetrical facial underdevelopment. It's really fascinating!!

  6. I value your important and informative point of view here. You have written this article so nice and informative. Thanks for sharing your time and effort.