How stress in the womb can lead to chronic disease

Stress in the uterus can lead to chronic disease from gene disruption
New research shows stress in the womb could lead to chronic disease that comes from disruption of gene expression.

The type of stress that comes from mother's inadequate diet, smoking or exposure to chemicals that disrupt hormones such as BPA are all suggested to lead to human disease based on a new study finding published in the August. 2013 issue of the FASEB journal. 

Researchers from Harvard explored epigenetic changes that can lead to cancer and other childhood diseases to find out what kind of stressors in the womb can harm health prior to birth. 

For their study Karin Michels, Sc.D., Ph.D and colleagues looked at patterns of genes that are needed for growth and development by analyzing cord blood of more than 100 infants.

They then looked at gene methylation – the process that turns our genes off. Methylated genes that protect us from disease are those that are turned off.

The results showed our genes can be disrupted in the uterus.

The researcher discovered a high level of disruption occurring with a gene called IGF2, found in cord blood and in 22 of the infants. Disruption of the IGF2 gene is linked to breast, colorectal cancer, Wilm’s tumor and a childhood disorder known as Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome.

"For a long time, doctors have considered fetal stress as a symptom of serious familial disease," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "Now, we see that fetal stress is in and of itself a long-term risk factor for chronic disease: it changes the way we inherit genes from our parents."

What the finding means for women
The study highlights the importance of eating a healthful diet during pregnancy, limiting exposure to toxins in the home and avoiding tobacco even in the form of second-hand smoke.

There has been recent emphasis on the harm to an infant’s brain development that can come from maternal exposure to BPA during pregnancy that is widely used to manufacture plastics and found in food packaging and canned goods. Exposure to pollution during fetal development has also been associated with higher risk of asthma during childhood.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that what we experience in the womb can have an impact on lifelong health and well-being. The finding suggests stress in the uterus can mean higher risk of cancer and other diseases later in life. 

Rebecca C. Rancourt, Holly R. Harris, Ludovic Barault, and Karin B. Michels.
“The prevalence of loss of imprinting of H19 and IGF2 at birth.”
 FASEB J August 2013 27:3335-3343; doi:10.1096/fj.12-225284