As I witness the epidemic of stress and stress related illness, I’ve often wondered why is this happening now in the midst of unprecedented material wealth. The epigenetic revolution is one of the most fascinating areas of science, and I believe provides an answer.
We often hear the debate of nature vs nuture, genes vs environment, but epigenetics turns this false dichotomy on it’s head. Our genetic material is incredibly vast. We have genetic potential for some many different options. We know that our brain, muscle and fat cells all have the exact same DNA but develop very differently. The key is what genes are activated and when.
During fetal development the turning on and off of genes is particularly finely orchestrated and sensitive to environmental feedback. Maternal inputs are preparing and changing the fetus for what type of environment awaits. These early cues have lifelong impacts. I can’t help but think we’re doing a poor job of limiting stress for pregnant women. Between family separation and one of the shortest maternal leave periods in the world, mothers are telling their fetuses be ready to come into a world of high stress. In response the fetuses are ramping up their stress systems to be prepared for escaping danger and want.
Fight and flights (sympathetic/adrenaline) mechanisms are wired out of control. We know the toxic effects of increased cortisol impair learning and promote obesity. I suspect much of the first born advantage is from increased stress from taking care of siblings while pregnant on top of the other stressors.
The appropriate message to fetuses today should be relax, take your time developing that incredible body and brain, no worries, a world of abundance is on the other side. Maternal stress drastically modifies our children’s brain leaving them susceptible to ADHD, obesity and addiction. The science of epigenetics helps explains much of our societal ills and dysfunctions. Dad’s the best things you can do for your children is give your wife the affection, protection and support to reduce this stress. Mother and dads love your kids lavishly. By withholding our affection and attention, we cause our kids to be more influenced by their peers than ourselves. This is actually not the natural order of things. Kids are thus raising kids with disastrous results. I love Gabor Mate’s writing on this subject, he’s the physician I most try to model myself after.