Women’s bodies, lifestyles and diets have a long history of being regulated before and during pregnancy. Women are often held responsible for the prenatal health of their offspring. While it is important for women to exercise during pregnancy, eat balanced diets and avoid environmental carcinogens, men also play an important role in the health of their children.
Sarah Kimmins, a specialist in reproductive biology at McGill University, has been studying the relationship between vitamin deficiency in fathers and the development of birth defects.
“It can’t all be on the mother,” said Kimmins. “Our study and others are now showing that the father can be a route for the transmission of birth defects and can influence offspring health…Guys need to pay attention to what they’re doing in terms of lifestyle choices prior to having a baby, just like the woman does.”
Approximately three per cent of children are born with birth defects. The cause of these defects is known in only half of the cases. Kimmins proposes that part of the reason for this lack of knowledge is that researchers tend to analyze only half of the equation (i.e. men’s role in prenatal health is minimized if not altogether ignored).
In Kimmins research, she has discovered that men’s health does impact the health of his children. Kimmins looked specifically at the effects of folate-deficiency in fathers. “We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30 per cent increase in birth defects” in offspring whose father was folate-deficient.
Folate and folic acid are a type of B vitamin. “People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency,” said Kimmins. “And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious.”
It is still unclear the extent to which men’s lifestyles impact prenatal health. Researchers suggest that the key lies in the epigenome, the chemical makeup that surrounds DNA. The epigenome is affected by environmental factors and signals for certain genetic information to be activated and passed on to children. The epigenome in men’s sperm acts as a memory house for the man’s environment, diet and lifestyle.
While Kimmins’ research is still in its early stages and cannot yet draw any conclusions about the extent of men’s influence on infant health, her research does encourage the medical community to widen the scope of inquiry and include men in their medical research.
Kimmins said, “I think we can say let’s start paying attention to a male’s preconception health…Look at things in your life like smoking, drinking, what you’re eating and be aware that if you’re living a bad lifestyle, you might transmit some of that information to your offspring.”