Maternal obesity directly impacts male offspring’s lifelong health
Recent findings reveal that sons born to mothers with obesity are more likely to face a host of health challenges from birth into adulthood, including a predisposition to obesity, liver conditions, and diabetes.
This increased risk is attributed to the unique way male hormones, or androgens, interact with the developmental processes of the liver in male offspring.
A groundbreaking study spearheaded by the University of South Australia (UniSA) delves into the complex effects maternal obesity has on the foetal liver’s response to androgen signalling.
The research highlights a concerning trend: male foetuses carried by women with obesity exhibit altered liver responses to androgens, pushing them towards accelerated growth, often at the cost of their long-term health.
According to UniSA’s Dr Ashley Meakin, androgens play a pivotal role in bestowing male traits and are integral to male development. However, an excess of these hormones can lead to oversized male foetuses. This not only complicates the birthing process but can also lead to lifelong liver function issues.
In contrast, female foetuses seem to have a protective mechanism against the excess testosterone stemming from maternal obesity, effectively dampening the androgen pathway in the liver. This curbs their growth and reduces the likelihood of facing metabolic disorders in later life.
Dr Meakin notes significant gender disparities in the prevalence of metabolic disorders in adulthood, attributing a higher susceptibility to non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases and diabetes in men to maternal obesity during pregnancy, especially if the birth weight exceeds 4 kilograms.
The research team, including study lead Professor Janna Morrison, head of the Early Origins of Adult Health Research Group at UniSA, underscores the critical importance of balanced nutrition during pregnancy. They argue that achieving a “Goldilocks pregnancy” – not too little, not too much, just right – is essential for fostering the best health outcomes for offspring.
Professor Morrison warns of the long-term challenges posed by societal attitudes towards nutrition, emphasising the urgent need to combat obesity and its ripple effects from gestation through to adulthood. She advocates for early education on healthy eating habits, which can have a lasting impact, particularly during pregnancy when optimal nutrition is crucial.
In the meantime, Dr Meakin suggests that dietary supplements might offer a temporary solution to correct nutritional imbalances during pregnancy, ensuring the foetus has the best possible conditions for healthy development.
The study, published in the journal Life Sciences, forms part of a broader investigation by Professor Morrison and her colleagues into the effects of maternal nutrition – both excessive and insufficient – on the developing placenta, heart, lungs, and liver.