A new study from the University of Cincinnati suggests that psychological stressors to a pregnant woman may mutate her baby's mitochondrial DNA, and that could put her child at an increased risk of a host of diseases like asthma and obesity.

While it's not necessarily all new news, new research from the University of Cincinnati suggests that the stress a pregnant mother has experienced even before becoming pregnant may play a role in the mutation of her baby's mitochondrial DNA and increase their risk of several diseases. This continued affirmation of the role a mother's mental health plays on her growing baby's development is more important than ever now, as pregnancy during a world pandemic is stress unlike many of the last few generations has seen.

And while we're often hesitant to highlight the effect stressors in a mother's life have on her baby due to the simple fact that some stressors are simply unavoidable and we don't ever want to mom blame, the research does confirm that it's important to support pregnant women or even those trying to conceive mentally as well as physically.

The research team was led by Dr. Kelly Brunst, an assistant professor of Environmental and Public Health Sciences in the UC College of Medicine. Dr. Brunst said that a lot of the conditions like asthma, obesity, autism and ADHD that start in childhood have ties to mitochondrial dysfunction. Saying that the fetal and infant period is a vulnerable time for environmental exposure because of the heightened and fragile development in utero and infancy, it's likely that mitochondrial dysfunction comes from environmentally induced changes over time that probably start at a molecular and cellular level during pregnancy. The team believes these changes alter physiological states that most likely play a role in adverse health outcomes down the road.

The study sequenced the mitochondrial genome of 365 placenta samples from birth mothers in Boston and New York City from 2013-2018. They identified mutations, and using a multivariable regression model, looked at the lifetime stress of mothers in relation to the number of gene mutations the placental mitochondrial genome had.

They found that women who had experienced higher levels of psychosocial stress--ranging from domestic violence, physical or mental illness, family hardship, sexual assault, serious injury and even incarceration--in their lifetime had higher mitochondrial mutations in their placentas. The most strong associations noted were in the placentas of black women. Higher stress-related DNA mutations were seen in both white and black women, but not in Hispanic women.

The researchers believe this phenomenon may be due to better cultural support for women in a Hispanic community than so for black or even white women. Dr. Brunst said the goal of the work was to see how maternal stress and trauma could impact mitochondrial function and in turn, neurobehavioral development so we can gain insight to the vulnerability of some children developing conditions that have previously been linked to environmental exposures like air pollution or even chronic stress.

Dr. Brunst said that they asked about events that may have happened even prior to conception, and they found that those events may also have had an impact of the mitochondrial genome of their baby.

Additional research recently came out about the effects of maternal anxiety on the neural development of their growing baby, again highlighting the importance of support for women and mothers as they both try to conceive and become pregnant. More concern over their mental health during pregnancy, and not just their physical health, may be able to mitigate some gestational stressors, but more research needs to be done.

In the meantime, what can you do?

Take the time to take care of yourself. Give yourself the naps you need for rest. Engage in mindfulness and breathing techniques to help relieve acute stressors of the day. Consider herbs and supplements that look to reduce stress levels and consider therapy if you believe you need someone to talk to and to help you resolve emotions or complicated feelings. There's something to be said for putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you're able to help others, and based on this and other research, the same may be true for your care during pregnancy. Particularly during COVID-19, when we feel isolated enough as it is, reach out to your people (or find some, right here, if you need to!) and let your network support you.