There are many myths that surround procreation. Perhaps the biggest one is that a baby will inherit its genetic blend from its parents and whatever winds up in this software code of life is to be endured for better or worse. Nothing can be done to change it. We were taught that we are stuck with our genes, so thank your parents and grandparents for your athletic prowess, musical ability, diabetes or pear-like profile. Stop any ten people on the street and ask them what they can do about their genes and I bet all ten throw up their hands in surrender.
But in recent years a medical concept called epigenetics is turning this paradigm on its head. It's the subject of my show on Tuesday and my new book with Dr. Michael Roizen "YOU: Having a Baby." Epigenetics reveals how our ancestors developed tools to turn on or off our genes in order to give our species the ability to rapidly adapt to a changing environment. This means we have inherited the ability to control how our genes are used.
Let me explain. Located along our DNA, genes serve as the blueprints of our body. These control everything that make us "us" - from our height, frame and eye color to mental health, intelligence and countless other characteristics. "It's in his genes" is a casual expression to describe anything from love of baseball to a Type A personality. But identical twins who have identical DNA can have different characteristics, allergies, personalities and abilities. Their DNA is pre-ordained, yet their response to environmental factors in-utero is not. To prove this point, scientists studying populations exposed to different environmental stress have noticed startling differences. For example, during World War II thousands of fetuses were exposed to the 1944 winter famine in the Netherlands. By the time of their birth, the war had ended and the babies were provided adequate nutrition, but over their lifetime, many more than expected developed diabetes and hypertension, reflective of a "thrifty phenotype." Even more surprisingly, the children of these famine babies also continued the trend of chronic illness even though the famine had long passed. Scientists point to this example as proof that genes can react to environmental factors, and for years we have tried to understand how we could extrapolate that thesis to practical everyday living tips.
Now here is the wow factor. You have almost 25,000 genes in each nucleus of each cell in your body. Liver, bicep, hair, sperm, pinky toe - doesn't matter - all types of cells have a complete operating manual for being human. But cells have to do only one thing, so they don't need the entire set of instructions. Ever try to thumb through your car's operating manual on a rainy night when looking for the spare tire release lever? Same situation. The cells find what they need by certain tags - called epigenetic tags - along the genome that tell it what to do. So the core issue is where the tags are, and what you do while your baby is developing makes all difference. It's epigenetics that make us unique. It sounds better to belt out "I gotta be me!" than "I gotta be epigenetically distinct!" - but you get where I am coming from.
We don't know everything about how epigenetics works during pregnancy, but we do know that the foods you eat and the chemicals you ingest or inhale push a lot of circuit breakers on or off in your baby. We also know that this isn't limited to a developing fetus - this continues throughout your life, your child's life, and can be passed on from generation to generation. By taking proactive healthy steps, you are actually giving your great grandchildren an advantage and a better set of genetic circuit breakers!
So if we nudge our epigenetic tags through simple behaviors, it can make a world of difference. Two areas that will have massive influence on your child's life are weight and intelligence. You can take Omega 3's as a supplement and eat foods like oily fish that are rich in the nutrient to help all the developing fetal brain tissue grow as healthy as possible. Same goes for moms who eat enough folic acid, which not only prevents spina bifida but also reduces childhood cancers. Also, I want to emphatically dispel the myth that you should "eat for two" during your pregnancy and gain weight with abandon. This is dangerous nonsense that could predispose your offspring to childhood obesity. You can have 100 calories extra in your first trimester, 250 extra in the second and 300 calories more in the home stretch. My wife and I have four children so I have witnessed both the cravings and the days when you can't look at food - these are guidelines and they won't be exact, but they will have a huge influence on your baby's epigenetic outlook. Your baby will thank you, so will your grandchildren and their grandchildren and so on. For more specific tips, go to www.doctoroz.com or watch Tuesday's show where we get into this topic in great detail with some real world experts.
Follow Mehmet Oz, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/droz.com