Healthy mom, healthy baby. Few would argue that a mother-to-be has the starring role in how a baby develops during pregnancy. However, an emerging body of science known as the Paternal Origins of Health and Disease shows that, in biological terms, fathers shape their children’s development more than previously thought.
Indeed, components of the male sperm have been linked with numerous pregnancy outcomes, from an increased risk of miscarriage to a predisposition for obesity in offspring.
At the moment of conception, the genetic contributions of the female and male are equal. Research connects a mother’s experiences during pregnancy with her offspring’s long-term health. The air she breathes, the food she eats, the stress she experiences, and the toxins she is exposed to can “program” the fetus for chronic illness as an adult.
Now science is showing that the father’s sperm can transmit similar vulnerabilities. The Paternal Origins of Health and Disease is connecting a father’s experiences prior to conception with the possibility that his offspring will develop certain conditions. His diet, lifestyle, age, and weight are among the factors that have been shown to affect how a fetus develops and even whether it will be carried to term.
Here’s how it works.
Experience Leaves an Impression
Basically, reproductive cells carry biological memories of past experiences, including those of their parents and grandparents. In scientific terms, these “memories” are known as epigenetic modifications.
It’s easier to visualize this process in females. Remember, a woman’s eggs were formed while she was still a fetus in her mother’s womb. It’s not hard to see that the quality of her reproductive cells, like all the other cells that are developing at that time, is affected by her mother’s experiences while pregnant.
With males, puberty is the vulnerable period because that’s when their sperm cells are forming. Experiences during this time leave impressions on the developing cells. These changes can be passed on through the generations, a process known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.
A Lasting Legacy
This research got off the ground in the early 1980s when a Swedish epidemiologist connected the dots between a grandfather’s diet and his grandsons’ lifespan. Males whose grandfathers ate too much around the time of puberty were inclined to die about six years earlier than the norm. When he teamed up with a British geneticist, their joint research showed that the sons of young men who smoked just before puberty were more likely to be overweight beginning in adolescence.
The Lens Widens
Gradually, researchers are uncovering more and more links between male sperm and offspring health. Laboratory studies show that fathers who don’t eat enough protein, increase the possibility that their offspring will develop heart disease. Those who eat a high-fat diet may raise their daughters’ risk of developing diabetes or breast cancer.
A father’s lifestyle prior to conception may also affect his children’s mental well-being. For instance, fathers who smoke or drink too much alcohol make it more likely their offspring will develop behavioral problems, including poor performance in school and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
And here’s some more food for thought: Children of obese fathers are more likely to develop various types of metabolic disease, regardless of their mother’s weight. Male obesity may also increase the risk of miscarriage. This aligns with a recent study linking poor sperm quality with recurrent miscarriages in men’s pregnant partners.
Delaying fatherhood also increases health risks for offspring. The children of older fathers are more likely to suffer from neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. Fathers who are older than 40 are five times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder than children of fathers who are 30 or younger. Research suggests that changes in epigenetic patterns due to aging may explain these links. It’s also worth mentioning that like their female partners, men’s fertility begins to decline around the age of 40, decreasing the chances of pregnancy.
Researchers are currently exploring how these processes work. A recent McGill University study identified a mechanism in sperm that transmits memories of a father’s diet. These scientists found that certain proteins in sperm resulting from a folate deficiency were transmitted to the embryo, altering gene expression and triggering birth defects.
Good Nutrition Can Help
The good news is that men can enhance their chances of producing healthy children by modifying their lifestyles to include a nutritious diet and adequate exercise. Nowadays, experts advise that both partners prepare for at least three months before attempting pregnancy. One reason is that it takes about that long for new sperm to develop and fully mature.
Emerging research suggests that supplementation with nutrients that support cell division, including vitamins B6, B12 and especially folate boost sperm quality. Dietary fats can also impact positively. Sperm cells have a higher concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids than other cells. Omega-3 fatty acids and the mineral selenium have been shown to improve sperm vitality and motility.
Recognizing that men, like women, have a biological responsibility to their progeny is a paradigm shift in our approach to reproductive health. However, we now know that men’s lifestyle decisions transcend themselves. Eating a healthy diet can benefit their children, grandchildren, and possibly generations beyond.
About the Author
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.
Paternal Origins of Health and Disease — Sources
Donkin, I et al. Sperm Epigenetics and influence of environmental factors. Mol Metab 2018.
Lismer, A. Histone H3lysine $ trimethylation in sperm is transmitted to the embryo and associated with diet-induced phenotypes in the offspring. Developmental Cell 2021.
Jayasena, C. et al. Reduced Testicular Steroidgeneisis and Increased Seme Oxidative Stress in Male Partners as Novel Markers of Recurrent Miscarriage. Clinical Chemistry, 2019