Unprotected Stress In the Womb: Setup for Depression and Anxiety


Nature has evolved a means of protecting the fetus from a mother’s stress hormones.

There is an enzyme found in the placenta and babies’ brains which deactivates the stress hormones. The enzyme acts like a bodyguard, disarming stress hormones such as cortisol that build up in the mother’s blood when she is under duress.

What happens when this pre-birth enzymatic bodyguard is faulty, or inhibited, is an area of interest for researchers. The enzyme's failure to protect helps explain why some children tend to be anxious, why some adolescents and adults are more prone to depression, and why some soldiers develop PTSD while others do not.

The Protective Enzyme and Stress

Scientists have already discovered several interesting things about this enzyme and fetal exposure to stress:

  1. Licorice contains a compound that inhibits the protective enzyme. Pregnant moms, rodent or human, who consume a lot of licorice while pregnant tend to have children prone to anxious behavior, hyperactivity or attention deficits.
  2. If a mother experiences extremely high levels of stress, her hormones might overwhelm the enzyme bodyguard in the placenta and pass through.
  3. Some placentas may not contain adequate amounts of the enzyme to begin with.
  4. A fetus in later gestation, during the second and especially the third trimester, is more sensitive to the mother’s elevated stress hormones.

How Stress Can Imprint Genes

What the research outcome describes is the epigenetic imprinting of a fetus by the mother’s stress hormones, if the hormones are not blocked by the protective enzyme.

Epigenetic imprinting refers to substances that change the expression of genes without altering the genetic material. Think of it this way. If you lay a coin on a piano string, and then strike the piano key connected to that string, the string will vibrate and make a sound. However, the coin would have changed the string’s sound though the string has not been altered.

When a mother’s stress hormones pass through the placenta and make it to the fetus’s brain, her hormones become coins in the child’s developmental programming. By imprinting the genes, the hormones have a say in whether certain genes are switched on or off. This affects a gene’s working role, or expression, throughout the individual’s life.

If you inhibit this [enzyme] barrier then you start to get children being born with low birth weight and who have altered stress responses and depression. This may be what underpins the variation you get from one individual to another. ~ Researcher Jonathan Secki, endocrinologist, Queen’s Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh.

Putting the Knowledge to Use

The researchers believe they have found a molecule that is present only in the blood of individuals exposed to high levels of in-womb stress. If this proves true, a diagnostic test could indicate which children are at higher risk for developing depression or anxiety. Early intervention may prevent the development of symptoms or reduce their intensity.

Scientists also report it is possible to safely wash away our epigenetic imprinting, and there is already a process developed to accomplish this. Although the process is not ready for general use, we may soon be able to get rid of all the coins sitting on our genetic piano strings. It gives new meaning to the phrases “singing your own song” and expressing your “true self.”

Source: The Telegraph


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