Healthy mom, healthy baby. Few would say that an expectant mother has the primary role in the development of a baby during pregnancy. However, an emerging body of science known as the paternal origin of health and disease shows that in biological terms, fathers shape the development of their children more than previously thought.
Indeed, the components of male sperm have been linked to many pregnancy outcomes, ranging from an increased risk of miscarriage to a predisposition to obesity in the offspring.
At the time of conception, the genetic contributions of the female and the male are equal. Research links a mother’s experiences during pregnancy to the long-term health of her offspring. The air she breathes, the food she eats, the stress she experiences and the toxins to which she is exposed can “program” the fetus for chronic disease in adulthood.
Now science shows that father’s semen can transmit similar vulnerabilities. The paternal origins of health and disease connect a father’s experiences before conception with the possibility that his offspring will develop certain conditions. Its diet, lifestyle, age and weight are some of the factors that affect the development of a fetus and even whether it will be carried to term.
This is how it works.
The experience leaves an impression
Basically, reproductive cells carry biological memories of past experiences, including those of their parents and grandparents. In scientific terms, these “memories” are called epigenetic modifications.
It is easier to visualize this process in women. Remember, a woman’s eggs formed while she was still a fetus in her mother’s womb. It’s not hard to see that the quality of her reproductive cells, like all other cells that are developing at this time, is affected by her mother’s experiences during pregnancy.
For men, puberty is the vulnerable period because that is when their sperm are formed. Experiments during this period leave impressions on the developing cells. These changes can be passed down through generations, a process known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.
A lasting legacy
This research began in the early 1980s when a Swedish epidemiologist linked a grandfather’s diet to the lifespan of his grandsons. Men whose grandfathers overeat during puberty tended to die about six years earlier than the norm. When he partnered with a British geneticist, their joint research showed that the sons of young men who smoked just before puberty were more likely to be overweight from their teenage years.
The objective widens
Gradually, researchers are discovering more and more links between male sperm and the health of the offspring. Laboratory studies show that fathers who don’t eat enough protein increase the risk of their offspring developing heart disease. Those who eat a diet high in fat may increase the risk of developing diabetes or breast cancer for their daughters.
A father’s lifestyle before conception can also affect the mental well-being of his children. For example, fathers who smoke or drink too much alcohol increase the risk of their offspring developing behavioral problems, including poor academic performance and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
And here are some more food for thought: Children of obese fathers are more likely to develop various types of metabolic diseases, regardless of their mother’s weight. Male obesity can also increase the risk of miscarriage. This is consistent with a recent study linking poor sperm quality to recurrent miscarriages in pregnant partners of men.
Delaying fatherhood also increases the health risks of the offspring. Children of older fathers are more likely to suffer from neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorders. Fathers over 40 are five times more likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder than children of fathers 30 and under. Research suggests that changes in epigenetic patterns due to aging may explain these links. It’s also worth mentioning that, like their female partners, male fertility begins to decline around the age of 40, decreasing the chances of pregnancy.
Researchers are currently exploring how these processes work. A recent study from McGill University identified a mechanism in semen that transmits memories of a father’s diet. These scientists found that certain proteins in semen resulting from folate deficiency were transmitted to the embryo, altering gene expression and triggering birth defects.
Good nutrition can help
The good news is that men can increase their chances of producing healthy children by making lifestyle changes to include a nutritious diet and adequate physical activity. Nowadays, experts advise both partners to prepare for at least three months before attempting pregnancy. One of the reasons is that it takes about the same time for new sperm to develop and reach full maturity.
Emerging research suggests that supplementation with nutrients that support cell division, including vitamins B6, B12 and especially folate, improves sperm quality. Dietary fat can also have a positive impact. Sperm have a higher concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids than other cells. Omega-3 fatty acids and the mineral selenium have been shown to improve sperm vitality and motility.
Recognizing that men, like women, have a biological responsibility to their offspring is a paradigm shift in our approach to reproductive health. However, we now know that men’s lifestyle decisions transcend. Healthy diets can benefit their children, grandchildren, and possibly generations beyond.
About the Author
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit him at www.judithfinlayson.com.
Paternal origins of health and disease – Sources
Donkin, I et al. Epigenetics of sperm and influence of environmental factors. Mol Metab 2018.
Lismer, A. Histone H3lysine $ trimethylation in semen is transmitted to the embryo and associated with diet-induced phenotypes in the offspring. Development unit 2021.
Jayasena, C. et al. Reduced testicular steroidogenesis and increased oxidative stress in male partners as new markers of recurrent miscarriages. Clinical chemistry, 2019