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Pregnancy Stress Can Have Life-Long Effects on a Child

By Lara Pizzorno, MDiv, MA, LMT
August 31, 2011
File under: Health Concerns, Medical Care, Pregnancy

What happens during a woman’s pregnancy can have life-long (or potentially life-shortening) effects on her child.

When 94 healthy young adults were tested, those whose mothers had experienced severe stress during their pregnancy (for example, the death or sudden severe illness of an immediate family member, loss of their home) were found to have much shorter telomeres than those whose mothers had had a healthy, uneventful pregnancy.

Why does telomere length matter?

Telomeres are like a string of little protective beads that cap off the ends of the chromosomes in our cells, protecting them — and the DNA of which they are composed — from damage.

When cells divide, however, their telomeres don’t get fully replicated because the enzymes responsible (DNA polymerases), are unable to continue the duplication process all the way to the ends of the chromosomes. So, each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten a tiny bit. When this shortening process reaches a critical point, this signals the cell to stop dividing and begin dying.

What this study reveals is that children whose mothers are severely stressed during their pregnancy start out life with shorter telomeres. This decreases their cells’  lifespan reserve and their susceptibility to diseases typically associated with aging – like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

How does this happen?

When a pregnant mother is severely stressed, her levels of the stress-induced hormone, cortisol, rise, and cortisol gets transferred through the placenta into the fetal

circulation where it affects fetal blood flow, increases oxidative stress (free radical production), and promotes insulin resistance—all of which promote decreases in telomere length.

What can you do about it?

It’s normal for telomeres to shorten as we age – our cells are continually dividing. But how quickly our cells have to divide is greatly impacted by our diet and lifestyle habits. Like severe stress, unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices wear out cells faster, so they have to divide more often.

Obviously, the opposite is also true. A health-promoting diet and lifestyle (adequate sleep, regular exercise, finding what helps you tune down, relax and de-stress – you know the drill) provides cells with what they need to live long and prosper.

One way in which diet and lifestyle impact cellular longevity is by affecting the activity of an enzyme called telomerase, whose job it is to re-elongate our telomeres. High levels of cortisol have been shown to shut down telomerase, but even in older folks with serious disease (prostate cancer), just three months on a low-fat, whole foods, largely vegetarian diet; moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes/day, 6 days/week), and use of various relaxation techniques (yoga, meditation, deep breathing, etc.), increased their telomerase activity by ~30%!

If you’re pregnant, you now have yet another reason to make healthy diet and lifestyle choices – and to take time to pamper yourself (and your growing baby). If you suspect you may have gotten the short end of the telomere stick, you can rev up your telomerase and reverse-engineer the process.



1) Entringer S, Epel ES, Kumsta R, et al. Stress exposure in intrauterine life is associated with shorter telomere length in young adulthood. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 16;108(33):E513-8. Epub 2011 Aug 3.  PMID: 21813766



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