12/11/2013 12:30 EST | Updated 02/10/2014 05:59 EST

Guess What? It's Dad's Diet That Might Be Affecting Baby

Women are told to take folic acid in advance of trying to conceive. Folate, which is found in leafy green vegetables, beans, liver, fruit and cereal, is known to prevent miscarriages and the risk of birth defects. Because of its importance in the healthy development of fetuses, women of child bearing age, or who are thinking about trying to conceive are advised to take folic acid supplements.

A couple of years back there were studies that looked into how much folic acid a woman should be taking, and at the time, many woman were advised to up their dose. The more folate in their systems, they were told, the lower the chance of birth defects.

Up until now, women have be the sole target of efforts to ensure enough folate in a diet pre-conception and during gestation. But a new study out of McGill University, published in a journal called Nature Communications, suggests that the campaign needs to be widened to include men. In fact, the study conducted on mice discovered that the folate levels in males had a significant impact on the risk and rate of birth defects in babies born to mothers who had healthy folate levels.

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We have known for a while that drug use can affect both quality and motility of sperm. Beyond that, studies into the importance of the health of sperm and the lifestyle choices men make and their affect on sperm have been few and far between. The McGill study could be a game changer.

"The rate of birth defects was 28 per cent higher per litter of baby mice if their fathers were fed a diet deficient in vitamin B9 or folate compared to litters where both parents were fed a healthy diet," CBC news explained.

Sarah Kimmins, associate professor of reproductive biology at McGill and the senior author of the new study, worked with a team to discover if there was in fact a link between folate levels in men and the risk of birth defects in their babies. The study involved a group female mice who were all fed healthy diets of folate, and two groups of male mice, half of which were fed a healthy diet and the other half who were fed low levels of folate, mimicking what a low folate diet would look like in a human. The findings were telling.

"The researchers examined the sperm of the males fed the folate deficient diet, and sure enough, they found the epigenetic markers were affected for genes linked to development and diseases such as cancer, diabetes, autism and schizophrenia," the CBC explained.

More shocking though, was the increase in risk of birth defects. "Among the 328 mice born to fathers with the folate-deficient diet, 14 had birth defects including muscle and skeletal defects, face and skull abnormalities, small lower jaws and webbed or fused digits. There were only three minor defects among the 285 mice whose fathers had a healthy diet."

Kimmins said the findings are significant enough that it is imperative it be replicated in humans to determine if the link is as significant as it appears in the mice she studied.

Kimmins told CBC that one in 33 children is born with a birth defect with no known cause. It's possible her team's research may have just uncovered at least part of the answer.

At the very least, the study highlights a huge deficiency in the research done on the cause of birth defects. More needs to be done to study the affects of men and their lifestyle and diet on the potential health of their future children.

Written by Leslie Kennedy for

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