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Bill WhiteBill White
A blog about mental and emotional health

Fetal Origins: It Isn't All "In Our Genes"

Bill White Updated: Oct 20th 2010

The October 4, 2010 issue of Time featured an article written by Annie Murphy Paul - "How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life."

ultrasound pictureIt's absolutely fascinating material about a new science known as fetal origins. Though it's relevant to so many diseases, I'd like to share the gist of the piece within the context of the emotional and mental health disorders.

Accounting for our emotional and mental pathology by saying, "It's in our genes," has become so cliché. Certainly, genetics is a huge factor, along with environmental factors. However, we're learning there are other riveting dynamics involved.

Fetal origins is all about our lives, well, as a fetus. And key disease-generating considerations are nutrition and exposure to drugs, pollutants, and infection. Also of significance is our mother's emotional, mental, and physical health; and overall level of stress.

Think about it - how could these factors not play a huge role in our development?

Emphasizing the contribution of fetal origins to the emotional and mental health disorders, Paul cites several revealing studies.

Regarding nutrition, she mentions a study based upon 30 years of case records from China's Anhui province. In the mid-20th century, many residents of Anhui endured severe malnutrition as a result of a massive famine.

The study observed that individuals born to severely malnourished mothers were twice as likely to develop schizophrenia, as opposed to those born to well-nourished moms.

Underscoring the role of stress, Paul cites a study conducted during the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. Offspring of women who were in their second month of pregnancy during the war were significantly more likely to develop schizophrenia as young adults.

Paul goes on to discuss the wonderful work of Catherine Monk, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Monk flat-out states a pregnant woman's mental state can absolutely impact her baby's psyche.

So how does that happen? Well, again, genetics certainly plays a part; as does out-of-the-womb environment. But Monk and her colleagues are learning some amazing things through ongoing research.

For example, they're monitoring the respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure of pregnant women enduring mood and anxiety disorders; as well as women who have no pathology. The team also monitors the movements and heart rates of the fetuses.

The women are then subjected to a battery of mental tests, and the impact upon the fetuses is recorded and analyzed. Results? Only the fetuses of the depressed and anxious women present with disturbances of their own. And the disturbances typically continue after birth.

Science is so wonderful - vital - don't you think? But it's one thing coming to know and understand something; and yet another to apply the knowledge in a relevant manner.

For my money, the best application is in prevention. And given what we've discussed, it sure wouldn't take a research scientist to devise and implement some immediately impactful prenatal adjustments.

Whether it's for the sake of your own offspring, or a family member's or friend's, make it your business to learn and apply. There certainly isn't much we can do about the "It's in our genes" of it all, but we can sure influence the prenatal environment.

Here's a link to the piece. Check it out, I know you'll enjoy it.


Bill White

After enduring decades of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism; Bill made it out of the woods. He found his life’s passion along the way, earned his counseling credentials, and is ready to lend a hand. Visit his blog at, and you can contact Bill at

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