Stress and Nutrition During Pregnancy: Factors Defining Transgenerational Future Health Within the Family

  • Tania Romo-González
  • Raquel González-Ochoa
  • Rosalba León-Díaz
  • Gabriel Gutiérrez-Ospina
Part of the The Anthropocene: Politik—Economics—Society—Science book series (APESS, volume 23)


A normal pregnancy is defined as the physiological state of a woman from fertilization to the birth of one or more living, healthy and full-term infants. Meanwhile, the term high-risk pregnancy refers to anomalous gestational conditions (e.g. eclampsia), which increase the possibility of pathophysiological states in the mother and/or the infant. There are several biological, gynaeco-obstetric and social risk factors for a high risk pregnancy. Conditions such as malnutrition, negative emotions, perceived stress and maternal anxiety are predictors of pathological conditions in both mother and child (e.g. obesity, diabetes, different types of cancer and some neurological and cardiovascular pathology). This scenario requires a modification of the concept of ‘high-risk pregnancy’, and advocates taking into account the monitoring of stress, anxiety, depression and food quality during pregnancy as potential risk factors not only for the baby, but also for subsequent generations.


Pregnancy Distress Malnutrition Negative emotions Transgenerational health 

2.1 Introduction

A normal pregnancy is defined as the physiological state of a woman from fertilization to the birth of one or more living, healthy and full-term infants (Guía de Práctica clínica para el Control Prenatal con enfoque de Riesgo 2008). Unfortunately, not all pregnancies are without complications; this is when the term high-risk pregnancy is used. It is important to highlight the fact that it is common during pregnancy for changes to be observed in women’s bodies that could be considered to be complications; for example, nausea, fatigue, drowsiness, liquid retention, swelling of the legs, mastodynia, frequent urination, gastroesophageal reflux, constipation and increased breathing rate are all common symptoms found in pregnant women (Cortez-Chavez 2006; Guyton/Hall 2005). These signs and symptoms, however, do not reflect real complications but rather how the body is adjusting to the pregnancy. As such, when we talk about truly high-risk pregnancies, we refer to anomalous gestational conditions (e.g., eclampsia), which increase the possibility of pathophysiological states in the mother and/or the infant, leading to the death of both or of one of the binominal parts of the mother-infant, or to permanent disabilities (e.g., psychomotor problems) in the full-term infant. The socio-medical gravity of high-risk pregnancies can be clearly seen in the fact that close to 800 women around the world die every day as a result of pregnancy-related complications, in addition to approximately three million new-born babies dying every year (World Health Organization [WHO] 2014). In Mexico, it is estimated that the leading cause of death among pregnant women is hypertensive disease (National Institute of Statistics and Geography [INEGI] 2013a), with a mortality rate for children under the age of one year old of 12.8 for every 1,000 live births (INEGI 2013).

In light of this situation, public health systems have proposed the implementation of pregnancy health programmes. For example, the campaign entitled ‘Reducing Pregnancy Risks’, launched by the WHO in the year 2000, recommends opportune clinical check-ups to detect risk factors in pregnant women. A risk factor is any circumstance that increases the probability of damage occurring as a result of personal, social and environmental situations that affect the individual (Mexican Department of Health 2001). As such, obstetric risk is understood to be ‘any external and/or intrinsic factor (or combination of factors) relating to women that could lead to some form of complication during pregnancy , labour, postpartum or that could, in any way, alter the normal development or survival of the product’ (Cortez-Chavez 2006: 3–4). In order to identify obstetric risk factors, the Mexican Department of Health implemented a multi-phase screening programme, entitled Prenatal Care, the goals of which are to identify, prevent and control factors that could put the life or health of the mother and the baby at risk during pregnancy (Ordoñez 2005). This programme classifies risk factors into three categories: biological, gyneco-obstetric and social; and it considers the presence of at least one of these factors to be sufficient cause for the doctor in question to categorise a pregnancy as high-risk:

Biological factors

  1. Arterial hypertension

  2. Nephropathy

  3. Diabetes Mellitus

  4. Chronic or systemic diseases

  5. Cardiopathy

  6. Aged 35 or over

  7. Psychiatric illnesses

  8. Hereditary diseases

  9. Poor nutrition

  10. Neuropathy.

Gyneco-Obstetric Background:
  1. Abortions/miscarriages

  2. Haemorrhaging during the second half of pregnancy

  3. Perinatal death

  4. Postpartum infection in previous pregnancy

  5. Prior Caesarean section

  6. Prior surgery in reproductive tract

  7. Chronic urinary tract infection

  8. Prematurity

  9. Aged 20 or under

  10. Birth defects

  11. Less than two years after termination of last pregnancy

  12. Having two or more caesareans

  13. Having two or more abortions/miscarriages

  14. Having five or more pregnancies

  15. Rhesus isoimmunisation in current or previous pregnancies

  16. Low birthweight

  17. Weight of last baby above 4,500 g

  18. Obesity and malnutrition

  19. Preeclampsia/eclampsia

  20. Gynaecological age of less than two years.

Social factors:
  1. Poverty

  2. Unwanted pregnancy

  3. Mother who is illiterate or has not finished elementary education

  4. Cultural factors

  5. Occupational factor (exposure to toxic substances, chemicals or infectious diseases; working more than 36 h per week; lifting heavy objects; standing for more than four hours per shift; mental stress; working in a cold environment or one with intense noise levels)

  6. History of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse

  7. Risk behaviours (self-medication, smoking, alcoholism and use of other hard drugs).

(Cortez-Chavez 2006; Guía de Práctica clínica para el Control Prenatal con enfoque de Riesgo 2008; Mexican Department of Health 2001).

As such, prenatal care is a tool that helps the person charged with monitoring the health of the mother-child during pregnancy to opportunely identify risk factors during pregnancy, and thus implement the corresponding preventive and corrective measures. The following are important clinical signs that need to be monitored: vaginal bleeding during pregnancy, convulsions or blackouts accompanied by blood pressure readings higher than 90 mmHg, high temperature (>38°C), abdominal pain, ruptured membranes, severe pallor or cyanosis, marked decline or weakness, sensation of fainting, severe headaches, blurred vision, vomiting and/or respiratory difficulties. Furthermore, it is important to mention that pregnancy risk diagnoses should preferably be carried out prior to conception, continuing throughout the pregnancy, labour and postpartum (Aguilar-Moreno et al. 2001; Pérez-Rúa 2005).

During prenatal care, the doctor must inform the patient of all the physiological changes associated with pregnancy, in addition to explaining the warning signs that may present during pregnancy, labour and postpartum, emphasizing the importance of attending prenatal care sessions periodically and undertaking any laboratory and medical tests deemed necessary. He or she should also explain the importance of neonatal screening and breastfeeding, promote healthy lifestyles and encourage the mother to avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, self-medicating and consuming other substances that put the risk of her health and that of the child at risk (Aguilar-Moreno et al. 2001).

Even though prenatal care can help prevent high-risk pregnancies, this same care is notorious for not taking into account the monitoring of stress, anxiety, depression and food quality during pregnancy (Qiu et al. 2009; Winkel et al. 2015); however, it has been shown that these are potential risk factors not only for the foetus, but also for subsequent generations (Drake et al. 2011). As such, it is necessary to implement strategies that minimize the negative impact that poor nutrition and stress during pregnancy can have on the health of the mother and child.

2.2 Stress as a Risk Factor in Pregnancy and Its Impact on the Health of Different Generations

The magnitude of the response of a person to stress depends on the interaction with information from a range of different sources, both biological (e.g., genes) and psychosocial (e.g., past experiences, social support). These same interactions influence the response to stress developed by pregnant women; however, pregnant women face specific situations that the general public do not, and which are a source of information that can be stressful. These circumstances are associated with physical and hormonal changes (which are associated with mood swings) and the anxiety of the pregnancy itself, associated with concern regarding the health of the foetus and with the pain of labour (Huizink 2000, quoted by Mulder et al. 2002; Van den Bergh 1992). Additionally, it is known that age, deficient education, low socio-economic level, sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy, an absent partner, lack of preparation for pregnancy and labour, and a history of depressive and psychiatric symptoms influence the perception of well-being and, as such, the stress levels of pregnant women (Paarlberg et al. 1996).

Furthermore, negative emotions, such as perceived stress and maternal anxiety, can predict depressive symptoms in both the mother and the baby (Milgrom et al. 2008), which is why stress has been recognized as an important etiological factor that can trigger mood disorders. This notion has been demonstrated in animal models, based on the supposition that the effects of stress on animals lead to a series of behavioural changes, some of which are reminiscent of symptoms that characterize depression and anxiety among human beings (van Dijken et al. 1992). Depression is particularly prevalent among pregnant women, affecting between 10 and 25% of them (Marcus et al. 2003; Nonacs/Cohen 2002). The greatest concern regarding these statistics lies in the fact that pregnant women with depression have a higher probability of premature labour (Orr et al. 2002); furthermore, other negative emotions, such as perceived stress and anxiety, have been associated with a reduction in the variability of foetal heartbeat (DiPietro et al. 1996), an increase in locomotor activity (DiPietro et al. 2002), and disruption to foetal habituation (Sandman et al. 1999), which, in conjunction, lead to miscarriages (Friebe/Arck 2008), low birthweight (Mutale et al. 1991) premature labour (Copper et al. 1996) and a wide variety of complications during pregnancy (Table 2.1).

Even though the pathologies present during pregnancy and around the time of labour are multifactorial, it is clear that a common element throughout these pathologies is the maternal-embryonic-foetal stress imposed on this dichotomy, both as a result of the conditions attributable to the age of the mother and the organic pathophysiological state of the mother prior to and/or during pregnancy (Muñoz/Oliva 2009; Paarlberg et al. 1995), whether or not they are associated with the socio-economic-cultural conditions of the pregnant woman. In fact, based on the previous point, a number of studies show that the expectations, fears and social conceptions that pregnant women have regarding their pregnancy have a profound impact, no matter their age, on the generation of pathophysiological states during pregnancy which are associated with psychosocial stress (Pimentel 2007; Senties/Ortiz 1993; Teixeira et al. 2009). Furthermore, it is known that women suffering from depression or anxiety associated with psychosocial stress during pregnancy show high levels of serum cortisol, which appears to lead to a state of immunological suppression (Walker et al. 1999), a decrease in serum levels of progestational hormones (Arck et al. 2007; Frye et al. 2011) and lesser neurological development (Clarke et al. 1994; Chrousos et al. 1998; Huizink 2000, quoted by Mulder et al. 2002; Schneider et al. 1999); these conditions are more pronounced if they occur during the early stages of pregnancy (Schneider et al. 1999). Moreover, exposure to prenatal stress is commonly considered to be an important factor in the development of a number of forms of psychopathology, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, schizophrenia and adult depression (Hultman et al. 1997).
Table 2.1

Factors that trigger a high-risk pregnancy (own elaboration)

Risk factor



Gynaecological age of less than 2 years

Pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, prematurity and low birthweight

Mexican Department of Health (2001), Cortez-Chavez (2006)

Aged 35 or over

Pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, low-lying placenta and uterine atony post labour

Less than 2 years between pregnancies

Prematurity and stunted intrauterine growth

Having had 5 or more pregnancies

Low-lying placenta and uterine atony post labour

Having had 2 or more abortions/miscarriages

Greater predisposition to abortion/miscarriage

History of pre-eclampsia/eclampsia

Predisposition to pre-eclampsia/eclampsia

Haemorrhaging during 2nd half of pregnancy

Predisposition to haemorrhaging

Having had 2 or more caesareans

Low-lying placenta, placenta accreta and rupture of the uterine scar during labour

Foetal death

Probability of repetition of foetal death


Probability of repetition

Arterial hypertension

Pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, stunted uterine growth, foetal and maternal death

Diabetes Mellitus

Pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, abortions/miscarriage, birth defects, stunted intrauterine growth or foetal microsomia


Pre-eclampsia, pre-term labour

Diego et al. (2006), Harville et al. (2009), Orr et al. (2007), Pimentel (2007), Romo-Gonzalez et al. (2012), Vianna et al. (2011), Wadhwa et al. (1993)


Pre-term labour

Diego et al. (2006), Field et al. (2004), Hompes et al. (2012), Paarlberg et al. (1999), Pimentel (2007), Steer et al. (1992), Vianna et al. (2011)


Low birthweight, pre-term labour, miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, emotional problems in the life of the baby influence foetal programming, descendants of the mother are more susceptible to anxiety and depression

Buss et al. (2012), de Weerth et al. (2003), Diego et al. (2006), Grandia et al. (2008), Harville et al. (2009), Nepomnaschy et al. (2006), Paarlberg et al. (1999), Pawluski et al. (2011), Salacz et al. (2012), Sandman et al. (2006), van den Hove et al. (2005), Vianna et al. (2011), Wadhwa et al. (1993)

Intrauterine infections

Imbalance of endocrine functions

Deregulation of placental clock

Deregulation of immunological tolerance

Pre-term labour

Challis (2000), Raghupathy/Kalinka (2008), Romero et al. (1994), Ruiz et al. (2003), Smith (1998), Veenstra van Nieuwenhoven et al. (2003)

Source Cortez-Chavez (2006), Guía de Práctica clínica para el Control Prenatal con enfoque de Riesgo (2008), Mexican Department of Health (2001)

These situations lead to morbid states, such as pre-eclampsia, miscarriage, compromised foetal growth, pre-term induction of labour, low birthweight, delayed post-natal psychomotor development and a greater incidence of infections during pregnancy and postpartum, among other complications (Diego et al. 2006; Field/Diego 2008). The pathogenesis of pre-eclampsia and other hypertensive states during pregnancy is associated with exacerbated inflammatory processes and poor renal function (Sargent et al. 2007), which control not only blood pressure but also the secretion of hormones, such as cortisol and noradrenaline. Moreover, elevated concentrations of noradrenaline lead to decreased dopamine production, which can be seen in the manifestation of symptoms of depression (Field et al. 2004). Additionally, the secretion of angiogenic molecules by leukocyte cells can promote the development of hypertensive disease associated with gestational stress (Geara et al. 2009). Furthermore, neuro-immuno-endocrine alterations relating to gestational stress, be they psychosocial in nature or not, can lead to complications and ailments during pregnancy or labour, affecting the health of the child when it reaches adulthood, in the event it survives (Bastani et al. 2005; DiPietro et al. 2004; Huizink et al. 2004; Monk 2001; Wadhwa et al. 2001; Table 2.1).

It has recently been shown that exposure to stressful situations during embryonic and/or foetal life predisposes the adult to obesity, diabetes, different types of cancer and some neurological and cardiovascular pathologies, associated with epigenetic re-editing (Bastani et al. 2005; Bilbo/Schwarz 2012; Bresnahan et al. 2005; Brown et al. 2004; DiPietro et al. 2004; Ellman/Susser 2009; Huizink et al. 2004; Monk 2001; Mulder et al. 2002; Wadhwa et al. 2001). Furthermore, a number of lines of research have not only shown that stress affects the mother and the baby during pregnancy, but that the stress history of their ancestors and parents also conditions the evolution and result of the pregnancy, given that maternal glucocorticoids can regulate the transcription of a number of the product’s genes. These are not limited to individuals exposed to the stress of the mother, as they can also be transmitted to the descendants several generations into the future (Drake et al. 2011). As such, in 2013, Crudo et al., suggested that epigenetic re-editing, associated with the methylation of DNA, the acetylation of histones and the transcription stemming from different environments in the early lives of humans and rodents, is not limited to a small number of genes, but rather involves a range of genetic networks and functional genomic patterns.

2.3 Nutrient Consumption During High-Risk Pregnancy: The Transgenerational Impact

NOM-007-SSA2-1993, a standard focusing on the care offered to women during pregnancy, labour and postpartum and to newborns, states that the majority of obstetric damage and health risks facing the mother and the offspring can be prevented, detected and treated successfully. As such, it is important to consider that the nutritional conditions of the mother before and during pregnancy will create a favourable or adverse in utero environment that will predispose the foetus to disorders such as obesity, diabetes or metabolic syndrome (Barker 1995; Nathanielsz et al. 2007; Remacle et al. 2007; Reusens et al. 2007).

While foods greatly define health, growth and development from foetus to old age, it is important to consider that both undernutrition and overnutrition have a harmful influence on the development of diseases. This is why diet and nutrition during pregnancy and early postnatal life are important in ensuring health (Darnton-Hill 2013). There is a wide range of experimental evidence that highlights the impact that eating habits have on health. For example, studies in rodents have shown that consuming large quantities of fat during pregnancy can lead to symptoms of metabolic syndrome among offspring when they reach adulthood (Brown et al. 1990; Chechi/Cheema 2006; Guo/Jen 1995). It would seem that this is due to the fact that a maternal diet that is high in fats leads to the accumulation of lipids, inflammation and oxidative stress in the foetal liver (McCurdy et al. 2009), which, in turn, leads to the development of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, dyslipidaemia and hypertension. Moreover, experiments on rats fed on a ‘cafeteria’ type diet during pregnancy showed that offspring acquire a preference for ‘junk’ food that is high in fats, sugars and energy density, combined with a lack of control over food intake as adults (Bayol et al. 2007).

It has also been shown that offspring whose mothers were submitted to a severe decrease in food intake during pregnancy presented with hyperphagia and decreased physical activity (Vickers et al. 2003). In both cases, it is clear that the subjects developed immediate adaptive metabolic responses that mean they are predisposed to developing metabolic diseases in adulthood (Langley-Evans 2006). Further studies, also on rodents, corroborated the fact that high-fat diets consumed by pregnant females ‘programme’ the hypothalamic pathways that regulate food intake (Bouret 2009). Although we do not know as much about the fine mechanisms that underlie the establishment of patterns of risk behaviour and metabolic states in human beings as we do in animal models, it is interesting that a large number of epidemiological studies on humans suggest that maternal obesity contributes to the incidence of obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome among their descendants (Levin 2006; Martin-Gronert/Ozanne 2005; Oken/Gillman 2003), not to mention that maternal malnutrition during pregnancy also increases the incidence of obesity among descendants (Levin 2009). In humans, as in animal models, the damaging effects associated with poor maternal nutrition during pregnancy are not only observed in the trends for metabolic disorders, they also have a neurological impact. Poor nutrition during pregnancy is associated with an elevated risk of depression (Rofey et al. 2009), attention deficit with or without hyperactivity (Waring/Lapane 2008), and anxiety (Kelley et al. 2005; Kiyohara/Yoshimasu 2009).

In summary, the type of nutrients consumed during pregnancy is an important factor to be taken into consideration in preventing high-risk pregnancy, as these nutrients lead to persistent changes in the body, changes that can also be transmitted from generation to generation. It has been postulated that these changes occur by means of epigenetic reprogramming (Sandovici et al. 2011), which makes neuroendocrine and metabolic conditioning possible so as to control food consumption, use and breakdown. The epigenetic mechanisms that condition hormonal and metabolic systems include the modification of DNA methylation levels and the modification of histone structure through methylation, acetylation and ubiquitination (Blewitt et al. 2006; Waterland et al. 2007).

Based on this, it is clear that nutritional problems lead to a series of epigenetic modifications that can have a negative impact on the mother-child dyad and on subsequent generations. However, it is important to remember that epigenetic marks and the phenotypical changes associated with them can be modified and even reversed by employing ‘positive’ factors, be they hormonal, psychological, nutritional, environmental, social and even cultural (Szyf et al. 2008), that function as translators for a ‘healthy’ environment (Gabory et al. 2009; Lelievre 2009).

2.4 Conclusions

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon (2009), referred to maternal health as ‘the mother of all health challenges … perhaps there is no other issue that better links safety, prosperity and progress as women’s health…’ (Castro-Santoro 2011, Par. 1)

In keeping with these views, we believe that, in order to tackle the problem of maternal and child morbi-mortality, it is important to start by redefining high-risk pregnancy. This new concept should not merely be considered an anomalous condition that increases the possibilities of developing pathological states or sequels that, in the short-, mid- and long-term, lead to the death of the mother and/or the offspring, but rather it should incorporate the risk that this implies for future generations, and, moreover, promote the message that pregnant women should avoid situations that generate stress, anxiety or depression, in addition to tackling poor nutrition, given that, as we have seen, these are factors that have a strong influence on the development of high-risk pregnancy.

Pregnancy is a crucial time, during which both a living being and the immediate and future health of subsequent generations is nurtured. As numerous studies have shown, the inadequate progress of the pregnancy conditions and/or promotes the development of psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, behavioural problems, such as attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity, emotional problems, such as depression, and even obesity, diabetes, different types of cancer, neurological pathologies and cardiovascular problems. This is why it is important to emphasize that proper stress management and a good diet can help reverse and/or prevent the incidence of these health problems among future generations.

Finally, it is important to recognize that stress and diet must be added to the list of factors that should be monitored in order to prevent high-risk pregnancy, and it is also important to modify the concept of prenatal care, focusing on monitoring pregnant women not only in terms of physical health, but also in mental and nutritional terms, through measures aimed at developing strategies that promote proper nutrition.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tania Romo-González
    • 1
  • Raquel González-Ochoa
    • 1
  • Rosalba León-Díaz
    • 1
  • Gabriel Gutiérrez-Ospina
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Integrated Health and BiologyInstitute of Biological Research, Universidad VeracruzanaXalapaMexico
  2. 2.Institute of Biomedical Research, UNAMMexico CityMexico

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