The vital part folate plays in the development of unborn babies is something mums-to-be have known about for many years. But now it has been revealed men, as well as women, need to have adequate intake of the important vitamin before conception to ensure the health of their future children.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is contained in leafy green vegetables, cereals and meat. If a developing embryo receives inadequate levels of folate in the early weeks of pregnancy there is a higher chance of the baby being born with neural tube defects, including spina bifida.
Doctors advise women to take folic acid supplements when trying to conceive and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of miscarriage and birth defects. But researchers from Canada's McGill University have found a fathers folate intake before conception can also influence whether or not a baby suffers from birth defects.
The team compared the offspring of male mice who ate sufficient amounts of folate with those who had low folate levels. They were surprised to find there was a 30 per cent greater rate of birth defects in the offspring of the male mice with poor folate levels compared with those with fathers who had adequate folate intake. The defects included severe skeletal abnormalities, including cranio-facial and spinal deformities, researchers said.
Authors of the study, which appears was released today and appears in the Natural Communications journal, believe the increase in birth defects shows a father's diet before conception can influences the sperm's epigenome, or switchgear. This in turn can deregulate key genes during the embryo's development and lead to birth defects.
Since 2009 it has been mandatory in Australia, as in many countries, for manufacturers to add folate to bread in a bid to ensure women of child-bearing age are consuming adequate amounts of folate. But lead researcher of the new study Sarah Kimmins says, despite this, many people may not be receiving adequate folate.
"Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolise the folate as well those with adequate levels of the vitamin,'' she said.
"Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come. If all goes as we hope, our next step will be to work with collaborators at a fertility clinic so that we can start assessing the links in men between diet, being overweight and how this information relates to the health of their children."
Neural tube defects are among the most serious birth defects. Spina bifida occurs when the spinal column does not close properly and children face paralysis, problems with mobility, muscle control and learning. The condition is permanent.
About 600 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects in Australia each year. The recommended folate intake for women is 400mcg a day, increasing to 600mcg a day during pregnancy.