Maternal Diet, Foetal Programming and Adult Health

That maternal diet and baby health are linked would seem right at an intuitive level, but there is increasing evidence that the mechanisms involved are really quite complex. A recent study has shown that a maternal diet low in proteinCompounds that form the structure of muscles and other tissues in the body, as well as comprising enzymes and hormones. can have the effect of increasing levels of the male hormoneA substance produced by a gland in one part of the body and carried by the blood to the organs or tissues where it has an effect., testosteroneThe main male sex hormone., in the mothers' placentaThe organ that nourishes the embryo during pregnancy and also eliminates waste. and this can result in an increased risk of high blood pressureThe pressure of blood within the arteries. (hypertensionHigh blood pressure.) in the baby in later years. In other words, if your mother was on a low protein diet, you are more likely to suffer from high bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. pressure. It is thought that the cause of this is that a low protein diet results in reduced activity of an enzymeA protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the body without being used up itself. that normally inactivates testosterone; this allows more testosterone to reach the baby in the wombThe uterus. and thereby increases the offspring's susceptibility to adulthood hypertension.

The impact of maternal stressRelating to injury or concern. on an unborn child's physical characteristics at birth, as well as its long-term health is known as "foetal programming". Due to the role that the placenta plays in hormone production and nutrient transport, it is believed to also play a major role in foetal programming. It has been known that elevated testosterone levels are associated with pregnancythe period from conception to birth-related complications such as pre-eclampsiaA condition of pregnancy associated with high blood pressure and protein in the urine (proteinuria). and polycystic ovary syndromeA hormonal disorder characterised by scanty or absent periods., but the new work by a team of scientists at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, USA suggests that testosterone may also play a role in foetal programming of blood pressure.

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