This is an area of scientific research that absolutely fascinates me! Despite dating back to 1942, it’s a relatively new and exciting area of research! Excuse the little science lesson before I actually get to my key points…
It’s well-known that we inherit 50% of our DNA from our mum and 50% from our dad. Our DNA is our blueprint that, together with our environment, makes us who we are. Epigenetics, a phrase coined by Waddington in 1942, was derived from the Greek word “epigenesis” which originally described the influence of genetic processes on development (Waddington 1942). Our DNA is structured into chromosomes (46 in humans). A chromosome is a very long length of the DNA molecule. Our genes are short sections of the DNA and tell our cells what proteins to make. In different cells, different genes are switched on. For example in the cell of the iris in our eye, there will be a gene switched on to make the proteins that give the eye colour. In a stomach cell, this gene would be switched off, as we don’t need the protein for eye colour in the stomach. Whether a gene is switched on or off is known as gene expression. Epigenetics is the study of how changes in gene expression that are hereditary (i.e. are passed on to children and future generations) happen.
What is the link to breastfeeding? Epigenetic changes to our DNA can be made by environmental and lifestyle factors such as nutrition, chemicals, stress, and emotional experiences (Wilson n.d.). Although the expression of our genes could potentially be altered throughout a person’s lifetime, the most critical time for epigenetic changes is from in utero to age three. Therefore the environment to which a mother is exposed during pregnancy and the nutrition that an infant receives during that period can have significant effects on the expression of their genes. These epigenetic changes may alter and change the predisposition of infants to certain diseases developing and therefore affect their lifelong heath (Wilson, n.d.). On an even deeper level, the egg cell that formed 50% of who our children are or may be, was developing in us when our own mother was pregnant with us. Therefore the environment that she was exposed to may well have initiated epigenetic changes to the DNA in those developing egg cells that have become or may become our children. So what we expose ourselves to, what we expose our children to, doesn’t just affect us and our children, but our future generations. Amazing.
Artwork credit – Amy Haderer, The Mandala Journey
“All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old foetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother. Each of us spent five months in our grandmother’s womb, and she in turn formed in the womb of her grandmother. We vibrate to the rhythm of our mother’s blood before she herself is born, and this pulse is the thread of blood that runs all the way back through the grandmothers to the first mother.”
Layne Redmond When the Drummers were Women
Feature photo credit: www.harrowbabies.co.uk
Kate Butler is a Secondary School Biology teacher by day and mother to two boys (aged 2 and 4) day and night. She trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter in 2013 and since then has set up local peer support meetings in her local area and joined the committee of West Herts Breastfeeders to support with fundraising and event management. West Herts Breastfeeders is a community based mum to mum peer support group that supports breastfeeding families with their breastfeeding journeys in the community and within West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
Waddington C.H. “The epigenotype”. Endeavour 1: 18–20 (1942)
Wilson, L. (n.d.). Nutrition and breastfeeding – the long-term impact of breastmilk on health. [ONLINE] Available at: http://motherjourney.com/uploads/3/5/3/1/35315324/epigenetics_and_breastfeeding_article.pdf [Accessed 26/07/2018]