Food Insecurity Affects Genetics of Newborns

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 00:25 a.m. DST, 18 May 2014

"Providing information for mothers" Photo by: DFID--UK Department of International Development

WEST KIANG, Gambia -- The nature versus nurture debate is a compelling and enduring question. Are humans resigned to their instinct and biology, or can their experiences and influences negotiate basic psychology?

While the best answers to this dilemma are generally rooted in theory, a new study published in Nature Communications journal offers valuable quantitative insight. Headed by Paula Dominguez-Salas, a team of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine scientists working in The Gambia researched 2,040 women to examine the effect of pre-pregnancy diet on the health of their children.

According to the study, mothers can in a sense "nurture" the nature of their child, before their youngster is even conceived. Maternal nutrition at conception modulates DNA methylation of human metastable epialleles concludes that in the years and months leading up to conception, the maternal diet can alter both the health and DNA of the baby.

Operating from a Medical Research Council outpost in West Kiang, Gambia, researchers observed women in 34 villages throughout rural parts of the east African nation. Women participants were pre-menopausal, not expecting, and had committed to live in West Kiang for the trial period of July 2009 to July 2011.

Monthly pregnancy testing enabled scientists to place the women into three categories--a non-pregnant control group, women who became pregnant in the rainy season (July-September 2009), and mothers who conceived in the dry months (February-April 2010). Experts then compared hair and blood samples of the Gambian infants to better understand the relationship between foodstuffs and newborn health. 

Typically, the rainy season offers vegetables such as leafy greens, eggplant and pumpkin. These are extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, but may provide less substantial caloric benefits. In contrast, Gambians eat more hearty meals during their dry season, including yams, peas and maize. Generally fresh fruits and vegetables are limited during this time of year, and nutrition may be lacking as a result. 

As opposed to their original hypothesis, the team found that the rainy season created optimal conditions for a soon-to-be mother. Researchers denote this time of high precipitation as the "hungry" time of the year. Despite annual food insecurity during this period, vegetable offerings are concentrated with essential nutrients. 

Nutrient-rich food is seemingly the most important component of a mother's diet--even more significant than a higher-protein, higher-calorie analog. In scientific terms, the seasonal foods typical of July to September promoted DNA methylation during pregnancy, which impacts the expression of an individual's genetic code. Whether the methylation process thrived or not, the consequences of this molecular activity are lifelong. 

The findings imply another example of the way that inequality so-often turns cyclical, perpetuating through bloodlines. Not only do women in developing economies have more difficulty gaining prenatal care and pediatric support during the early months of pregnancy and the pivotal years of child development, but we now know that the resources available to the mother help to define the child's genetic makeup, long before pregnancy. This makes education and food security all the more necessary.

A child's very "nature" is indeed impacted by the "nurture" he or she receives in the form of macrominerals, and essential vitamins B and D. Scientists are using this study and others like it to identify the ideal diet for expectant mothers. Future studies will determine the most beneficial diet for the maximized health of the baby. Until then, newborns in The Gambia and other food-insecure regions will be fundamentally at-risk for micronutrient deficiency and the genetic repercussions.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

Sudan: Pregnant Woman Condemned to Death or Religious Conversion

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Olivia Elswick, Contributing JournalistLast Modified: 00:13 a.m. DST, 16 May 2014

Atsbi village, Tigray, Christian Woman, Photo by Evgeni ZotovKHARTOUM, Sudan - Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, 27, has until Thursday to either denounce her Christian faith or face a death sentence.

When Ibrahim’s father, a Sudanese Muslim, abandoned her at age six, her mother, an Ethiopian Orthodox, raised her as a Christian. Ibrahim identifies herself as a Christian, but despite this she is considered by the courts to be a Muslim, as her father was.

She was reported by a family member in August 2013 and was arrested on charges of adultery. Ibrahim has been convicted by a Khartuom court for abandoning her Muslim faith in favor of Christianity, an action that, under Sharia law, indicates that she committed adultery with her husband, a non-Muslim.

Because the law considers her a Muslim, her marriage to a Christian man is considered void and adulterous. Marriage to a non-Muslim man is prohibited for Muslim women. Ibrahim and her husband have a 20-month-old son and she is expected to give birth to her second child sometime next month.

In past cases involving pregnant women, the Sudanese government has waited until the woman gave birth before executing a sentence. If sentenced to death she will likely be flogged with 100 lashes then hanged.

The blatant disrespect for freedom of religion and interference in the personal life of Sudanese citizens is outraging people in Sudan and abroad. Authorities have closed Khartuom University indefinitely after Sudanese students there mounted a protest begging for the end to human rights violations, more freedom, and better social and economic conditions.

In Khartuom, foreign embassies are urging the government to rethink its decision. A joint statement issued from the embassies of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands says, “We call upon the government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion, including one's right to change one's faith or beliefs, a right which is enshrined in international human rights law as well as in Sudan's own 2005 Interim Constitution.

We further urge Sudanese legal authorities to approach Ms. Meriam's case with justice and compassion that is in keeping with the values of the Sudanese people,” the joint statement read.

Follow Olivia on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @OCElswick

Emotional Health – Surviving the Maelstrom

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Julie Rowley, Contributing AuthorLast Modified: 00:10 a.m. EDT, 15 August 2013

Being healthy is about more than just keeping physically fit and maintaining a good work/life ratio. With all that life throws at us: the small troubles we encounter and have to resolve each day; the monumental tribulations that arrive on our doorsteps unannounced; and the vagaries of our bodies, we ride an emotional roller-coaster that can take its toll on us.

Our Bodies

From the time we hit our menses, we are subject to the ever fluctuating chemical balance of our bodies. We may experience anxiety about our menstruation, both anticipating it and dreading its arrival. For some women their monthly cycle is a time of intense pain, with cramps which can affect not just the abdomen, but circle around to the back as well.

For women with heavy menstrual flow there is the additional concern throughout this time of keeping clean and the fear that the telltale signs will appear on our clothing. Another common fear that women face is the absence of their menses, which may indicate an unwanted pregnancy. With the best will in the world and the use of birth control, slips can sometimes occur. At the other end of this scale are the women for whom the appearance of their menses means the conception they are trying to attain has not happened – yet again.

This comes with the corresponding disappointment and when this becomes a long term occurrence, depression and anxiety, as well as feelings of failure can set in.

Pregnancy is for most women a strange mixture of joy and misery: from the morning sickness (who ever coined that phrase has a lot to answer for…), through the dizzy spells; water retention; and cravings for foods we would normally not look at once, let alone twice; to the discomfort of the baby taking up so much room that all our normal body functions are disrupted. This is seasoned liberally with the awe and wonder of this little being growing inside us; the swelling abdomen; the first noticeable flutter of movement and we become completely and compellingly absorbed in this process.

Our hormones are wildly out of control during this time and although usually rational and reasonable people, we become emotional and volatile. Things which normally we would shrug off hurt or anger us instead. Some women find that their desire for a normal, intimate relationship with their partner dwindles or vanishes altogether during their pregnancy. This can be frustrating for the partner and a source of concern that the relationship is not as close as it was beforehand.

The diminution or complete loss of desire during pregnancy may come as a surprise, but in actual fact it is quite common and a normal feature of pregnancy. Nonetheless it can cause tension and stress between partners. Added to this already complex bundle of changing needs and emotions is the ongoing concern about the baby: the fear of miscarriage during the first 16 weeks; the waiting for the first movement and worrying if it does not happen at what we are told is the “right time”, even though it varies from one pregnancy to another; then dealing with all the odd twinges and aches which occur through the later part of pregnancy.

The birth itself can be a source of anxiety and fear, particularly if it is the first; and this is mingled with a sense of anticipation and excitement that the moment has finally arrived and very soon the “bump” will be gone and we will be able to hold our son or daughter.

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Published: 15 August 2013 (Page 2 of 2)

Further along the line, when we reach the end of our childbearing years, we have the looming specter of menopause. Not only do we have to deal with the regrets and feelings of loss as we leave behind the prospect of fertility and release our past identity to embrace the new phase we are entering, which in itself can be difficult and prolonged; but we have to deal with any physical symptoms which can accompany menopause.

Some women are lucky enough to sail through, while at the other end of the spectrum are those who experience every unpleasant physical side effect in the book, having to deal with the embarrassment of: sweats; mood swings; sleeping problems; and palpitations; to name but a few.  We may have to deal with depression, anxiety and feelings of loss of identity or alienation as we struggle to find new meaning to our lives.

Dealing with the Emotional Fallout

The emotional and mental experiences of these phases of our lives would be enough by themselves to live through and come out the other side in one piece. However, this is only, as women know only too well, a small part of the picture. We can add to this the many milestones and events, both large and small, in our life which can cause stress, anxiety and depression; the negatives can often seem to outweigh the positive, especially when we are dealing with bereavement and loss.

We now recognize that grief follows a natural cycle, whether that grief is related to losing a job or perhaps a divorce; anything which takes something out of our lives will trigger the grief cycle. This is composed of around 5 different stages, although there are different interpretations and some include 7 stages.

The first stage is of shock and denial, when it is difficult to grasp or to accept what has happened. As the reality of our loss becomes more real, the initial shock can turn to anger, which can be directed inwards at us or outwards at the world.

Following this we may enter a stage of trying to change the situation by altering our position in relation to it, by bargaining for the return of what or who we have lost.This passes and we then enter a phase of deep sorrow and depression, where life can lose its meaning for us and everything becomes a struggle. Finally we reach a level of acceptance of what has happened and our lives start to move forward again. It can take several years on average to work through this process, although everyone re-adjusts at their own pace and may take longer to pass through some stages than others.

Occasionally our own internal emotional processes become unable to complete the grief cycle and we can become stuck in one of the stages. At times like this, where our own resources and inner strength are not enough to find resolution to our problems, we depend on those close to us to understand and be there for us.

Sometimes though they are unable to give us the help we need to move on through the grieving process and it is at times like this where counseling can be invaluable; to be able to release our thoughts and emotions around our loss to someone who can understand and empathize, as well as helping us to see things from a different perspective and facilitate our moving forward once more.

When we think of the toll that a lifetime of such emotions can take on us, it is truly amazing that not only do we manage to survive this wild ride, but is a tribute to women everywhere that we emerge as such profound and inspiring human beings.

Follow Julie Rowley on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report

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