As much as the world may be advancing in various sectors, healthcare continues to portray a grim picture. Globally, there is a surge in the rate of people affected by metabolic diseases such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Not only has their percentage increased, but it has also started to hit them a decade in advance as compared to the previous trends. The numbers are even more alarming for the developing states compared to the developed countries. In the past decade, the instances related to cardiovascular diseases have seen a snowballing effect in India.
In the West, the primary reason associated with metabolic diseases is high body weight (obesity) or high BMI (Body Mass Index= weight in Kg/height in m2). But does it stand true for the Indian population? What makes India a leading country in diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Is it the population size or lack of physical activity in their routines? Contrary to the scenario in developed states, studies show that India witnesses more cases due to lower body weight or relatively lower BMI. Genetic makeup could be a possible reason behind this difference, which is what we’re covering in this article.
Fetal origin of adult diseases
Numerous reports have come up suggesting genetics as the root cause of metabolic diseases. One such hypothesis on ‘fetal origin of adult diseases’ is proposed by Dr Barker from the UK. According to him, infants who experience acute malnutrition during their development in the womb are more likely to be affected by metabolic diseases in their adulthood. Hunger or malnutrition experienced by mothers during pregnancy severely impacts the growth of the baby. Caloric restrictions among women at different stages of their pregnancy determine the health of the baby. Excessive caloric intake in the initial stages result in infants having higher body fat and a higher rate of metabolic diseases when they grow up.
‘Catch-up growth’ syndrome
If a fetus exposed to acute malnutrition in the uterus of the mother continues to experience it post-birth, then its genes are mostly accustomed to survive in minimum nutrition conditions. However, if the circumstances change and there is an excess of calorie intake post-birth, these infants with a low birth weight undergo the ‘catch-up growth’ syndrome. It means that they experience rapid growth after a period of retarded growth. When the growth-inhibiting condition no longer exists, there is an increase in body fat in these children, which in turn leads to obesity and metabolic diseases when they become adults.
Another underlying factor for the development of cardiovascular diseases among adults early in their life can be traced back to their exposure to high blood sugar environment within the mother’s womb. If a pregnant woman experiences high blood sugar which was not present prior to pregnancy, known as Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM), it can have a lasting impact on the fetus. These mothers mostly give birth to bigger than an average newborn babies. Such babies suffer from obesity and other metabolic diseases in their adulthood due to excessive body weight and body fat.
All these factors testify that the environment inside the uterus and under-nutrition during pregnancy are strong determinants for a child’s health throughout life. Poor nutrition to the baby in the womb followed by excessive calories after birth can lead to abnormal growth of the baby. Metabolic diseases in adulthood are often treated as something that has its source in the growing years. Seldom do we realize that the damage is done in the pregnancy stage itself. Hence, the solution lies in nipping the evil in the bud: ensuring quality nutritional intake and timely diagnosis and treatment of high blood sugar in pregnant women. Women should get a proper diet consisting of proteins, micro-nutrients, vitamins, and good quality fats. It can significantly impact the intensity of childhood obesity, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome in young girls and Type 2 Diabetes seen in teenagers and adults in their early years.