MAKING AN IMPACT

Mom's healthy weight & blood sugar levels before pregnancy may improve baby's health

Released: Friday, December 02, 2016

Eating a healthy diet, exercising, controlling your weight and blood sugar level are key to good health at any stage in life. But, recent research shows maintaining healthy weight and blood sugar levels are especially important for women and their babies in the earliest stage of pregnancy.

"If a pregnant woman is obese or has uncontrolled diabetes, her baby is at greater risk of developing heart, neural tube and other birth defects," explains Dr. Claudia Kappen, who holds the Peggy M. Pennington Cole Endowed Chair in Maternal Biology & the Risk of Obesity.

To prevent harm to the baby and problems during birth, most expectant mothers are screened for gestational diabetes in their sixth or seventh month of pregnancy. Kappen studies complications that occur much earlier in embryos' development—usually before a woman realizes she's pregnant or knows she has diabetes.

"Neural and heart tube defects that occur within the first three weeks of conception are caused by impaired cell migration in diabetic pregnancies," Kappen says. "For example, spina bifida [meaning split spine] results from the neural tube's inability to close because not enough cells migrate to that area."

Besides the increasing the risk of birth defects, early exposure to diabetes in the womb appears to program children for health problems later in adult life.

Some embryos form normally, even if their mothers have gestational diabetes. So, Kappen seeks to isolate the protective factors that promote the normal development despite the diabetic environment and determine the potential for nutrition to make a difference.

While it can be aggravated by obesity and eating more calories than we need, "Insulin resistance is a normal consequence of being pregnant," Kappen says. "Presumably this is so that nutrients are first available to the embryo/fetus, and only secondarily to the mother."

Recently, the National Institutes of Health's Eunice Kennedy Schriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development awarded Kappen $2.84 million to study Epigenetic Mechanisms in Diabetic Embryopathy and $2.73 million to study Molecular Basis for Individual Susceptibility to Neural Tube Defects.

With this funding, her laboratory is conducting studies on diet composition and vitamin supplements to identify beneficial factors that may prevent birth defects and the onset of other disease during pregnancy. Ultimately, Kappen hopes her research at the lab bench translates into a healthier world for generations to come.