There’s no shortage of data highlighting how humans have impacted their environment. From climate change to Feng Shui, people constantly alter their surroundings to suit their needs. What is less understood is how environment can impact human development.
In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) gives many hopeful parents the opportunity to create a family. With the use of donor eggs, hopeful parents-to-be often assumed that the child wouldn’t share any of their characteristics. However, with the development of epigenetics, this isn’t altogether true.
Epigenetics is the study of how lifestyle choices can impact your DNA, while not actually changing it. External factors can include environment, what we consume, how we are raised and even how we feel about our world. If we think about a DVD, we can’t alter the content, but we can adjust the picture, language preferences, volume settings, etc. Through the lens of IVF with donor eggs, epigenetics observes how non-genetic characteristics (or “markers”) can be transmitted from parent to offspring.
“Stress, exercise, proper nutrition during pregnancy, the general health status of both partners, these are all factors that can affect how your baby’s genes are expressed,” Carrie Nicols, organic farmer and student of holistic nutrition tells Parentology. “Even if you use donor eggs, your biography can inform your child’s biology.”
What does “expression” mean? Nicols likens the process to light switches. “Certain characteristics can be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on the stimuli,” she says. “Once we know what triggers them – proper nutrition for example – we can figure out how to manipulate them for better overall health.”
Epigenetics, IVF, and a Donor Egg
If epigenetics has the potential to alter or affect health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and even psychiatric illness, it stands to reason physical and hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy would certainly be impacted. In 2009, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center suggested our social environment, including maternal care, can “induce epigenetic changes.”
Nicols agrees. “While factors such as nutrition, stress and hormones won’t change your genetic code directly, they can certainly leave an ‘imprint’ to pass along to your children.”
The impact of environment on an embryo in utero can’t be overstated. Researchers studied the effects of malnutrition on women and the children they produced between 1944 and 1945. Not surprisingly, mothers with limited access to food produced underweight babies.
What was surprising was that those babies grew up to have underweight babies, even after the effects of food insecurity were felt. Of those babies that survived, malnutrition had changed a marker in their genetic code, leading researchers to determine that “the nine months in utero were the most important period in determining how much or how little genetic activity genes will produce during a person’s life.”
If a woman is undergoing IVF using donor eggs, this argument proves particularly relevant. Dr. Norbert Gleicher, Medical Director and Chief Scientist at the Center for Human Reproduction (CHR) in New York, agrees. “While (women) do not contribute maternal genes to the baby, they determine, in very significant ways, how these genes will work during the individual’s lifetime,” he tells Parentology.
Moreover, Gleicher says a woman’s impact on her embryo while it’s in utero not only affects her unborn child. “Maybe even more importantly, (genes that are) “programmed” during the in utero period can also be inherited into future generations. Therefore, you may be important not only for how your own child’s genes function, but also how your grandchild’s genes will be functioning, even if you used donor eggs.”
Ultimately, pregnancy demands a change in your lifestyle. Regardless of whether you have IVF using donor eggs or conceive naturally, the incentive to eat well, rest and take care of yourself is paramount to the health and well-being of your child.