Males born to obese women are overweight at birth and more likely to develop metabolic complications later in life, including liver disease and diabetes.
Photo credit: University of South Australia
The way male sex hormones activate pathways in the developing liver is partly responsible.
That’s according to a new study led by researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) looking at the effects of maternal obesity on fetal liver androgen signaling.
Obese pregnant women have different signals to the male fetus that are activated by male sex hormones in the liver, which encourages them to prioritize growth at the expense of health.
UniSA researcher Dr Ashley Meakin said androgens give men their male characteristics and are important in their development, but if there are too many, male fetuses become too large, which not only causes problems at birth, but also affects liver function as adults.
Female fetuses exposed to excess testosterone during an obese pregnancy shut down the androgen pathway in the liver, limiting their growth and reducing the risk of metabolic disorders in adulthood.
We know there are gender differences in metabolic disorders later in life in response to maternal obesity. Men are at increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and diabetes as adults if their mothers were obese during pregnancy and their birth weight was greater than 4 kg (9 lb 15 oz).. They are genetically wired to prefer androgens because it supports the development of male characteristics – including size – but too much androgen is bad.“
Dr Ashley Meakin, UniSA researcher
Lead study author Professor Jana Morrison, Head of Early Origins in the Adult Health Research Group at UniSA, said it was a delicate balance for women to get the right nutrition during pregnancy to ensure the best conditions for their unborn child to develop.
“Children are also at risk of malnutrition during pregnancy” she says. “If you are born too small, too big, too early, or a male, you are more vulnerable to negative outcomes later in life. Your Goldilocks pregnancy needs: You must be the right size, born at the right time“
Professor Morrison said unless society changes its approach to nutrition, it will be an uphill battle to reduce obesity and related health problems from the womb to adulthood.
“As a society, we urgently need to tackle obesity. If children are taught early on the importance of healthy eating, it will carry over into adulthood, including during pregnancy, where proper nutrition is critical.“
In the interim, supplements that address nutritional imbalances during pregnancy may give the fetus the best chance for optimal development, Dr. Meekin said.
The Liver Androgen Signaling Study, recently published life scienceIt is among a series of studies by Professor Morrison and colleagues investigating the effects of maternal under- and over-nutrition on the placenta, heart, lungs and liver.
Males born to obese women have a higher risk of liver disease as adults
Video Credit: University of South Australia