Nutrition Affects Unborn Babys Immune System

Taking micronutrient supplements impacts babys genes

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(RxWiki News) Pregnant moms know that nutrition during pregnancy can impact a baby’s growth. But did you know that what you take into your body before you’re pregnant may be able to help your baby fight off disease?

A new British study shows that taking nutritional supplements can change genes in your baby that are critical to development of the baby’s immune system.

University of Cambridge researchers looked at 58 babies and found that moms who took micronutrient supplements before they were pregnant had babies whose genes changed in a process called methylation.

The babies’ genes were still modified when doctors looked at them again, 9 months after birth.

"Ask your obstetrician what supplements you could take during pregnancy."

Methylation impacts the development of the baby’s immune system, according to the study’s authors.

The study’s authors looked at 58 babies of women who were given a placebo or a cocktail of micronutrient supplementation that contained folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B, C and D.

The women, all living in the African country of The Gambia, were trying to become pregnant, and underwent the trial treatment over about 8 weeks, until their pregnancy was confirmed (which means that some likely took supplementation during the earliest stages of pregnancy).

The researchers note that in The Gambia, the availability of nutrients to a person varies with seasons. Food and nutrients are plentiful during the dry season, while there is poorer nutrition during the wet season. Babies born in the wet season are usually more susceptible to infection, the study notes.

Using blood samples, they examined 12 different regions in the DNA of the babies. The research team looked at imprinted genes that are directly impacted by what a mother’s diet. More specifically, they reduced the methylation levels of two of the 12 regions: the IGF2R (insulin-like growth factor 2 receptor) in girls and GTL2-2 (gene trap locus 2) in boys.

It is known that a baby’s immune system genes change, particularly right after birth and in early childhood, says lead author Dr. Nabeel Affara, head of the division of cellular molecular pathology at the pathology department of the University of Cambridge.

These changes are normal as long as adequate nutrition is available to the fetus, he says in a press release. If a baby doesn’t receive adequate nutrition, gene changes may occur, which can impact the effectiveness of the immune system, which may result in lower immunity and a susceptibility to infectious diseases, he explains.

The study’s findings show that nutrition is important, and it impacts gene function, Affara says, and improved understanding on this topic can help us target nutritional intervention to improve health in later life.

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals - including fluoride, sodium, copper and zinc – that your body only needs small quantities of in order to survive. (Macronutrients, which provide calories and energy, are needed for growth and include carbohydrates, protein and fat.)

This clinical study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and was published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics. 

Last Updated:
February 23, 2012