Depressed and overweight? Look to the past

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During the harsh winter of 1944-1945 a large part of the German-occupied Netherlands suffered from severe shortages of food and fuel. (

If a pregnant woman experiences severe food shortages and famine, will that affect the health of her offspring?

Research in the Netherlands and in Russia into the health of elder adults who were born in periods of famine during WWII, has given some very intriguing answers. It shows that nature intervenes during periods of famine, in such a way that the unborn baby is genetically better adjusted and prepared for a life of scarcity and hardship.

Such babies have a more efficient metabolism and can survive on less food than babies from the same mother who were born during a period of sufficient food supply. And this special gift from nature remains intact during adult life, when former “famine babies” are also unusually fertile and often have more children than others who were born during normal times. The research in Russia even gave indications that such changes can also be made during puberty, when the body prepares itself for adulthood.

As an adult a former “famine baby” remains genetically different from his or her brothers and sisters who were born during more prosperous times. It is not that the sequence of genes in their DNA is different, but it is a matter of which genes in the DNA are “on” or “off.”

Individual genes in the human DNA can be activated or de-activated, known as “epi-genetic” differences. And that is what happens to the DNA of the unborn child in the womb, depending on the external circumstances in which the mother lives.

So a woman who is pregnant during times of famine and scarcity, gives birth to a child that is better prepared for such a life. And this effect is hereditary, certainly in the female line, because a baby girl comes into the world with her ovaries already completely present.

A pregnant mother thus directly influences the epi-genetic make-up of her grandchildren, who may again pass this on to their children, many decades later. Apparently nature takes no risks, and the special epi-genetic adjustments for famine can be passed on for several generations.

A convoy of trucks of Allied food supplies moving into German-occupied territory along the road from Wageningen to Rhenan, Netherlands, 3 May 1945.
A convoy of trucks of Allied food supplies move into German-occupied territory from Wageningen to Rhenan, Netherlands, May  3 1945.

In Russia this research into the long-term health effects of famine, was done during the past few decades, with people who were born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the siege by the German army in the period 1941-1943. The city was isolated from the outside world, no food entered the town and the people were forced to eat everything they could find, including insects, rats and even grass. Eventually tens of thousands of the inhabitants of Leningrad died of starvation and cold.

In the Netherlands a similar research program started about 20 years ago and it is still continuing, with people who were conceived or born during the “Famine Winter” or “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945. During that last winter of WWII the country was suffering terribly from the ravages of war, and the western part of the country was cut off from food and fuel supplies. When liberation finally arrived in May 1945, about 20,000 people had died from starvation and cold, especially in the big cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

The research in the Netherlands is even more complete than in Russia, because medical archives still have the medical files of the mothers who conceived or gave birth during the “Famine Winter,” which complements the medical and genetic data of the surviving ‘famine babies’, who are now 70 year old senior citizens.

However, the wonderful and beautiful adjustments that nature makes for a life of scarcity and hardship also has a dark side. Because it is now known that the senior citizens who are blessed with such superior genes against famine, are also more vulnerable for all diseases that are linked with food.

They were prepared for scarcity, and therefore their bodies and minds cannot handle the abundant food supply in the affluent western society. In later life these “famine babies” have thus an abnormal high risk to suffer from overweight, obesitas, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, stress, depression, etc.

But these former “war babies” are certainly no exception in this, because the same may happen to anyone who has a mother and/or (great)grandmothers who conceived and gave birth during hard times. With the best of intentions, nature also helped these women to deliver babies that were ready for a difficult future that in many cases never came. But this effect will nevertheless be passed on for several generations, especially in the female line.

So everyone who has inexplicable health problems that are somehow related to food — which can take many forms — should wonder who his or her foremothers were and what lives these women lived. If these were lives during hard times with food shortages, that may be an explanation for the health problems of today. But it may also give clues to a cure of these health problems, because a scarce diet should do such people a world of good. In their case it is certain that “Less is More!”