Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, such as the B vitamins and the minerals zinc and selenium, that are required by the body in very small quantities in order to perform many crucial bodily processes.
The new research took place in Gambia, where individuals born during the ‘wet’ season (when there is less food and nurients available), have higher rates of infection and disease. The women in the study were given either a micronutrient supplement or a placebo until they became pregnant. The study then tested samples of DNA from babies at birth again at 9 months old.
The results suggested that the supplemented mothers had babies with healthier immune systems as a result of methylation changes. “These changes are part of the normal development of the immune system provided adequate nutrition is available.” Explained lead researcher Professor Affara. “Where this is not the case, the result is likely to be reduced ability to fight infection and hence susceptibility to infectious diseases.”
The type of changes in the supplemented mothers were created by a better rate of ‘methylation reactions’. Methylation refers to a special set of chemical reactions in the body. These reactions work like a ‘switch’ in your body, activating beneficial chemicals, and deactivating harmful ones. The methylation cycle is important for immune function, and so if methylation is not working optimally, then our ability to fight infection is impaired.
Professor Affara added: ” If we have an improved understanding of what nutrition is important, we can target nutritional intervention to improve health in later life.”
While many of us are aware of the importance of nutrients such as folic acid in pregnancy, it is becoming increasingly evident that the whole spectrum of vitamins and minerals have an important role to play. The current study certainly indicates that mothers who ensure optimum nutrition before pregnancy are supporting the immune health of their children not only at birth, but throughout their child’s life.
Written by Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC
The paper ‘Periconceptional maternal micronutrient supplementation is associated with widespread gender related changes in the epigenome : a study of a unique resource in the Gambia’ will be published in the April 2012 edition of Human Molecular Genetics.