The Southern Side of the Endocrine System: What in the heck is fetal programming?
You’ve heard it, and perhaps you’ve even believed it…. the puffed up 10% truth most of us have been trained to wholly believe… that genetics largely determines our health fate. However, if you’ve stuck with me this long you’re a seasoned super sleuth and will already know that we have the upper hand. In becoming the conscientious gatekeepers of our personal “temples” (see I Corinthians 6:19), we are prohibiting the careless destruction caused by all things toxic to the mind, body, and spirit, and are largely (upwards of 90+%) able to prevent and circumvent the expression of wayward genes. THIS is what personal health and wellness management should look like.
There is another aspect to this though that I’ve not yet mentioned: womb life, and what that means to us as adults. “Fetal programming” is the propensity for developing a disease or dysfunction later in life based solely on environmental womb conditions… not genetics. Fetal programming starts the moment Harry (sperm) met Sally (egg) on the fallopian tube highway , and the effects of it will be felt throughout life and the life of your kids. Yes, what happened in your womb experience can affect future generations. Talk about scripture being walked out in life! (Exodus 20:5)
Because I believe in learning from history, let me give you a well documented example of this phenomenon. During the winter of 1944 World War II, the Dutch suffered a 6 month starvation event at the hands of the Nazi’s. More than 4 million people were affected, surviving on about 30% of normal caloric intake. As you might suspect, pregnant women who lived through the Dutch Hunger Winter gave birth to babies who weighed a fraction of what a term baby should weigh. As adults, these children were found to be more susceptible to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other health problems, while their siblings did not. As a result of being starved “in utero”, their bodies developed a “thrifty” mechanism which altered insulin production and the normal metabolism of sugar. As a consequence, when these children grew into adulthood and lived in a “normal food availability” world, their body still responded as though it was living in a state of starvation.
While an adaptation like this is meant to be a survival mechanism, it doesn’t always work out that way in health.
More examples of this include:
A 2009 study which showed an association between maternal anxiety during pregnancy and the development of asthma in offspring.
A 2011 study which looked at the effects of a violent environment on a fetus during pregnancy. Offspring tended to have poorer health, more difficult temperament, and increased likelihood of depression.
A May 2022 study found that maternal prenatal depressive symptoms had a negative effect on toddler behavior which began expressing by the time they were 18 months old.
Research has also shown that even chronic (key word) mildly stressful living situations can lead to negative changes in the fetus neurologically. The formation of neurons in a fetus begins at the 42nd day of pregnancy, and by the 28th week of pregnancy, a baby’s brain contains billions of neurons….. 40% MORE than the adult brain contains. After the 28th week of pregnancy, complex structural and functional changes in the brain take place, and a chronically stressful environment has an effect on this development. The environmental impact of womb life on a baby’s brain and body development is huge!
Perhaps you are curious how this happens…. ie: the root causes?
During stress, there is a rise of maternal cortisol activity in the mom. A chronic higher than normal cortisol activity is thought to lead to the triggering of atherosclerosis, insulin resistance, and cholesterol levels as the babies advance through their own adulthood. Low birth weight babies (a clue!) are more likely to grow up having an exaggerated stress response and secrete higher levels of cortisol themselves, have a decreased vascular elasticity and delayed vasodilation (leading to issues related to high blood pressure), have fewer pancreatic beta cells (the cells that make insulin), and tend towards osteoporosis in adulthood.
Stress also activates the inflammation process in the baby’s body, which leads to activation of the immune system, releasing chemicals called cytokines. Cytokines are not a bad thing until there is overproduction or inappropriate production, at which point disease or dysfunction occurs.
A baby’s brain does not begin to produce serotonin until late in pregnancy. The placenta does provide serotonin to the baby at a level which helps develop both structure and function of the baby’s brain. Animal studies have shown that increased serotonin exposure to fetal brain tissue in utero alters many neuronal circuits which can lead to behavioral problems later in life.
Neonatal nutritional deficiencies can affect fetal programming. Malnutrition comes in two forms: under nutrition (scarcity of food) and unhealthy eating habits with high calorie, low nutrition diets. Both result in a lack of essential micronutrients such as iron, folate, choline, vitamin B12, zinc, tryptophan, omega 3 fatty acids and iodine which are crucial to fetal brain development.
All of this has profound implications on us as adults, but also on babies forming in the womb. For us grownup humans, if it is suspected (or known) that we were carried by our mothers under stressful conditions, some of us may have to work a little harder at mediating stress response because of our own fetal programming scenario. Half the battle is understanding the why. The other half is knowing how to use the tools we have on hand to help support a healthy mind and body. Thank goodness for these tools of ours! I’ve talked at length about them, so I leave it up to you to revisit those posts. Ideally, please share in the comments below what modalities you have found that work best for you. Our personal stories help light the path so that others may also find their way.
Now, what about these sweet babiesin the womb? Thankfully, the placenta plays a vital role in protecting the baby from harmful chemicals that may be in the mother’s blood by acting as both a barrier and a filtration system. A healthy functioning placenta will go a long way to prevent a biochemical or synthetic chemical cause for negative fetal programming. I always smile when I hear a new mama talking about how her midwife or doctor marveled over the beauty of her placenta that was supported daily with NingXia Red. There are soooo many of these stories out there! Some of the ways a healthy placenta may be supported include: NingXia Red, Master Formula, Super C Chewables, Mineral Essence, Sulfurzyme, Multigreens, Super B.* (*all with approval from your trusted doctor or midwife of course! ).
The good news is that fetal programming works both ways. Incorporating a healthy mind, body, and spirit/ soul experience throughout pregnancy with improved quality of food eaten, reduced exposure to hormone disruptive and toxic environmental chemicals and mediating maternal anxiety in natural ways improves the chances of a positively “programmed” tiny person who is more apt to be able to roll with life’s punches physically and emotionally. Remember too, that thoughts and words mean something to the body whether that body is an adult or a fetus, and the effects may either be a honeyed balm or a toxin. Words matter, and the body reflects what we think and feel about ourselves.
Use your Thieves Household Cleaner. Toss the toxins.
Diffuse your favorite Young Living essential oils. Ditch the endocrine disrupting fake fragrance air fresheners and plug-ins.
Honor your body and the bodies of future generations with your choices.
Think about all those little babies who are worth it! So are we. Each one of us.