Lifestyle Choices Cause Epigenetic Changes to Father’s Sperm

Sperm carries information about dad’s well-being that influence a baby’s health.

Posted Dec 04, 2015

ARZTSAMUI/Shutterstock
Source: ARZTSAMUI/Shutterstock

I've always thought it was unfair that women carry such a disproportionate burden of responsibility during, before, and after pregnancy. Well, it turns out that the lifestyle choices fathers make in the time leading up to getting pregnant are carried in their sperm at an epigenetic level.

What Is Epigenetics? 

Epigenetics is the study of how a person's social environment and lifestyle choices trigger 'on/off' mechanisms in his or her genetic switchboards. Unlike changes to the DNA sequence of regular genetics that are hardwired, the changes in gene expression created by epigenetics are malleable and have a variety of outside causes.

In the past few years, a wide range of epigenetic studies have reported that the physical health and fitness of the father at the moment of conception can greatly impact the physical health of his offspring. Hopefully, this growing scientific evidence will inspire every father-to-be to exercise more, eat better, and achieve a healthy body weight before conceiving a baby. 

A new study from the University of Copenhagen reaffirms that heritable characteristics are passed on to children based on certain aspects of the father’s well-being at the time of conception. The lifestyle choices of the father, that appear to impact a child's health, examined in this study were based on body weight, as related to diet and exercise. Smoking cigarettes may also have a detrimental epigenetic impact on a father's sperm, and subsequently, a baby's long-term health outcomes. 

Epigenetics Is a Strong Motivator to Make Healthier Lifestyle Choices 

In 2014, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Physically Fit Fathers May Have Healthier Children,” based on a variety of early epigenetic human and animal studies that examined how obesity and fitness levels of a father were passed on to future generations.

Luckily, epigenetic types of gene expression are impacted by environmental and lifestyle factors that are ever-changing and often in the locus of your control. Epigenetics is based on changes to small RNA molecules (microRNAs) in sperm and the way genes are expressed, as opposed to mutations in DNA that are hardwired into the genes.

Epigenetic research can serve as a source of inspiration and motivation to remain proactive and make lifestyle choices to maintain a healthy weight. That said, as an egalitarian public health advocate, I see a potential backlash of this information being misconstrued or interpreted in negative ways that could lead to feelings of inferiority, judgement, and discrimination based on someone's body mass index (BMI).

The good news is, neuroplasticity and free-will guarantee that nothing about the human condition is ever set in stone. People can change their lifestyle choices and metamorphasize both mind and body in positive ways during every stage of life. 

My objective for writing about this research, and this blog in general, is to provide inspiration and motivation for individuals from all walks of life to make positive lifestyle changes. Healthier daily choices help everyone to optimize his or her infinite human potential. It's important that scientists and policymakers stay cognizant of the potential for any research on genetics and epigenetics to backfire.

Obesity Can Reprogram Sperm Cell Signatures Epigenetically

Courtesy of Donkin and Versteyhe et al./Cell Metabolism 2015
This visual abstract shows how spermatozoa from obese men carry a distinct epigenetic signature compared to lean men, in particular at genes controlling brain development and function.
Source: Courtesy of Donkin and Versteyhe et al./Cell Metabolism 2015

The groundbreaking December 2015 study, “Obesity and Bariatric Surgery Drive Epigenetic Variation of Spermatozoa in Humans," was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

The findings reveal that a man's percentage of body fat affects the heritable information contained in his sperm. The researchers found that the sperm cells of lean and obese men possess different epigenetic marks. The most dramatic variation of gene expressions occurred in  regions associated with appetite control. These findings offer a new potential biological explanation for why children of obese fathers are predisposed to become obese.

In a press release, senior author Romain Barrès, an Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen said,

"Our research could lead to changing behavior, particularly pre-conception behavior of the father. It's common knowledge that when a woman is pregnant she should take care of herself—not drink alcohol, stay away from pollutants, etc. But if the implication of our study holds true, then recommendations should be directed towards men, too. 

We did not expect to see such important changes in epigenetic information due to environmental pressure. Discovering that lifestyle and environmental factors, such as a person's nutritional state, can shape the information in our gametes and thereby modify the eating behavior of the next generation is, to my mind, an important find.”

Barrès was inspired to conduct his current study after researchers reported that a small Swedish village, that experienced a famine generations ago, found a correlation with the risk of their grandchildren developing cardiometabolic diseases.

The scientists hypothesize that the nutritional stress of the grandparents had been passed down via epigenetic marks to their children and grandchildren. Epigenetic markers can control how genes are expressed. This has also been shown to affect the health of offspring in humans, insects, and rodents.

There are likely evolutionary reasons why information about a father's weight would be valuable to offspring. Barrès theory is that in times of abundance, it's an instinctive way to encourage children to eat more and gain weight. "It's only recently that obesity is not an advantage," he says. "Only decades ago, the ability to store energy was an advantage to resist infections and famines."

Conclusion: More Research on Epigenetics Is Needed

The epigenetic field of research is still in its infancy. This is an exciting time to cautiously put these findings into practice. Regardless of future findings on the role of epigenetics on offspring, the advice to make healthier lifestyle choices and maintain a healthy weight throughout your lifespan is universally agreed upon as the key to well-being.

Additionally, both men and women considering having a child, should realize that investing time and energy into healthy daily habits and physical fitness before conceiving a baby could pay high dividends regarding the long-term health of your child.

Epigenetic research opens up exciting possibilities for creating intervention strategies that can help to minimize public health issues, such as obesity, in future generations. Genetic traits that many assumed were indellible, and could not be modified may, in fact, be malleable. In conclusion, Ida Donkin, MD, lead author of the paper, said, 

"Today, we know that children born to obese fathers are predisposed to developing obesity later in life, regardless of their mother's weight. It's another critical piece of information that informs us about the very real need to look at the pre-conception health of fathers. And it's a message we need to disseminate in society. 

The study raises awareness about the importance of lifestyle factors, particularly our diet, prior to conception. The way we eat and our level of physical activity before we conceive may be important to our future children's health and development."

In the context of combating obesity trends on a global scale, the identification of an epigenetic link to inherited metabolic disorders that are passed on to children—and which are sensitive to improving diet and physical activity—is hugely promising in terms of combating the obesity epidemic.

Lastly, this epigenetic research should serve as another type of motivation for weight loss and healthier daily habits for fathers-to-be, not as a reason to feel demoralized or "less than" if you are one-out-of-three Americans who is currently obese. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

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