Three revolutionary things you want to know about pregnancy: even if you will never have a baby

Three revolutionary things you want to know about pregnancy: even if you will never have a baby

Posted on September 26 by Manda Aufochs Gillespie in Non-fiction
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It’s an exciting time to be having a baby. Even if you, yourself, are not the one having the baby. I discovered this over the last year as I wrote my newest book, Green Mama-to-Be: Creating a Happy, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Pregnancy. Some of the research is so new that the studies are literally just now being published. They are changing the very idea of what we thought to be true about the nature of human life. They are also fundamentally hopeful concepts: perhaps our health — or lack thereof — is not as set in stone as we once believed.

 

  1. The womb is not sterile

Until very recently scientists and doctors believed that the womb was a sterile environment and a child’s first exposure to bacteria was through the birth canal and right after. In the last few years, scientists have established that actually there is bacteria in the amniotic fluid, placenta, meconium, and in the fetus’s intestines and that the microbiome begins to develop in the womb and is influenced by the mother’s health and diet.

One of the big buzz words these days in the world of health is the microbiome. This refers to an ecological community of microorganisms that share our body space. To begin to understand the idea of the microbiome, it’s essential to understand that humans are made up of trillions of bacteria. We have as much bacteria and other microbes making us up as we have our “own” cells. Not only that, but it would seem that at least some of this bacterial life — such as that lining our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts —  have coevolved with us and are unique and essential to human health, especially the functioning of our immune system. In other words, to be in a state of complete health a person will have all the elements of their microbiome living in harmony and that will include all the human cells as well as bacteria and organisms that might be classified as viruses, parasites, or other as-yet-unidentified microbes. The microbiome of a healthy human gut will be different of that of a healthy rat gut. In fact, the microbiome of one healthy human’s gut might be quite different from that of another healthy human’s gut. We have similarly unique microbiomes in our mouths, vaginal tracts, and on our skin.

                       

  1. Getting beyond nature versus nurture

Most people are aware of the basics of the nature versus nurture question: How much of our children and ourselves is determined by genetics and how much by environment? And for many, many years most of us—including scientists—thought that the genetics and the environment were in two separate categories: both important but very different.

Enter the world of epigenetics: the study of environmental factors which turn genes “on” or “off” determining whether and how genes are expressed. Because epigenetic changes don’t affect a person’s fundamental DNA they can be, to some extent, altered by our present choices. The influence of the womb can begin as early as conception. What happens in the womb, particularly in relationship to nutrition and environmental contaminants, can alter the expression of the growing child’s genetics. Research shows us that poor diet can cause changes in the expression of the genes, and that those genetic changes can be passed on from mother to child — often through changes to the microbiome — but that they can also be passed from, say, grandfather to grandson.  Most people aren’t so lucky to the recipients of four generations of great, wholesome eating. I grew up poor and spent my early childhood eating processed food from a box supplied by the government. My mother faired a bit better because they grew up middle class and at a time when there were far fewer contaminants in our air, water, and food. My grandmother had the closest to an optimal diet: raising most of what they ate themselves and with ready access to fresh eggs, real milk, and almost nothing processed. So I am a revival generation, working towards better health for me and my children and aiming towards optimal health of my children’s children.

 

  1. Parenting can be brain-food for mamas and papas

That mushy feeling and all the underlying emotions that seem to go along with it in pregnancy are real and they serve a good purpose. Mother’s grow new brains: they both grow and lose grey matter and the brains get rewired. Some researchers surmise that this period is one of great synaptic pruning, similar to what happens in a young child and again in adolescents, where under-utilized neurological pathways, aka synapses, are eliminated to make way for new neural networks. The brain research also suggests that the changes in a mother’s brain are most dramatic with her first child. Indeed, it isn’t clear that the changes ever fully convert. Some researchers explain that it is as if all women have the blueprint inside their brains for motherhood.

It’s not all about the mothers, however. While the newest study on grey matter was quick to point out that fathers don’t grown new brains, numerous other research shows that dads have the capacity for significant brain changes to support parenting. For men, these brain changes don’t seem to be driven by oxytocin, but are directly tied with caregiving. The more involved the father, the more he is supported by a feedback loop that helps wire his brain for that involvement.

Interestingly, it’s also been found that the “male” hormone testosterone decreases after a man becomes a father and the more involved he is in childcare the lower his testosterone drops. This is irrespective of how high his testosterone is before becoming a parent, indeed men with higher testosterone before parenthood actually seemed to have a better chance of becoming fathers. Lower lifetime testosterone may also impact men’s health, even decreasing chances of prostate cancer. This, as with much about parenting and the brain, is still being studied as is whether testosterone levels eventually rebound. This hormonal change, according to some researchers, suggests that men are also preprogrammed to be involved parents.

 

These are just three of the hundreds of interesting — even exciting — discoveries I was fortunate enough to learn about while writing the new book. I hope you get interested and check it out of your local library or buy it from your favourite local bookseller. Learn more about all aspects of health living and the Green Mama series of books at www.thegreenmama.com