Vitamin D Adjusts Epigenetic Marks That Could Hinder A Baby’s Health

Vitamin D During Pregnancy Affects Children's Health

Even though it’s common for expectant mothers to have low vitamin D levels, it’s essential to the health and proper development of the baby. A low amount of vitamin D is associated with poor fetal growth, childhood obesity, bone density, and bone mineral content. Interestingly, key functions of the placenta – like transporting nutrients to the growing baby – are controlled by the expression of genes, which is mediated by vitamin D. Researchers have now discovered that this vitamin might epigenetically influence the functioning of the placenta via DNA methylation.

A group of scientists from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom recently conducted a study to investigate whether short-term exposure to vitamin D made any change to the epigenetic signature of placental villi, which are small, finger-like protrusions in the placenta that help to increase contact with maternal blood.

After obtaining ethical approval and informed consent, the researchers collected human placentas within 30 minutes of delivery. They cultured placental villi fragments in 25-hydroxyvitamin D for eight hours. Then, they measured genome-wide DNA methylation in order to identify sites that were altered due to the treatment of vitamin D.

DNA methylation in humans, a well-known epigenetic mark, occurs at specific cytosine residues within CpG sites of DNA. CpG sites are particular regions of DNA where a cytosine and guanine nucleotide is separated by phosphate. DNA methylation forms 5-methylcytosine, and this mechanism is known to silence the expression of genes, or turn them “off.”

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The research group found that over 1,500 genes contained significantly upregulated CpGs and more than 2,000 genes contained significantly downregulated CpGs as a result of vitamin D. They discovered that the pathways affected by vitamin D exposure included those related to transcriptional regulation, development, and other common epigenetic mechanisms that can control the expression of genes known as histone methylation and histone demethylation.

Vitamin D was ultimately shown to lead to rapid changes in placental DNA methylation. “In addition to its role as a transcription factor, vitamin D may act to change gene expression in the placenta by altering methylation status,” the researchers reported.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, vitamin D now has extensive research supporting its role in immune function, healthy cell division and bone health. Over 40% of people in the U.S. are deficient in this crucial vitamin.

Individuals can boost their vitamin D levels by eating foods that are rich in vitamin D and by getting a sensible amount of sun exposure. Certain foods include salmon, herring, cod liver oil, mushrooms, egg yolks, and fortified drinks and food like milk, orange juice, and cereals. Supplements are also available, but receiving the proper dose is incredibly important, especially for expectant mothers.

In light of these results, changes in certain DNA methylation pathways due to vitamin D could potentially affect the placenta in many ways. Although further research must be done to uncover the possible impact, this study poses an interesting look into the benefits of vitamin D and expands on the dangers of having too little of it. The group of researchers indicates that future work should compare the short and long term effects of vitamin D on placental DNA methylation.

Although the risks children face resulting from vitamin D deficiency are well-documented, this study provides evidence for an underlying epigenetic mechanism that may be at play during pregnancy.


Source: Brogan, A. et al. (2017). Short term vitamin D exposure alters methylation status of term placental villi. Placenta, 57:262.

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Bailey Kirkpatrick
About Bailey Kirkpatrick 159 Articles
Bailey Kirkpatrick is a science writer with a background in epigenetics and psychology and a passion for conveying scientific concepts to the wider community. She enjoys speculating about the implications of epigenetics and how it might impact our perception of wellbeing and the development of novel preventative strategies. When she’s not combing through research articles, she also enjoys discovering new foods, taking nighttime strolls, and discussing current events over a barrel-aged sour beer or cold-brewed coffee.
  • Marc Sorenson

    Vitamin D is a critical factor in human health, and the reason for suboptimal levels is that we have been frightened out of the sunlight. Sun exposure is the natural way to optimize vitamin D. It is also important to know that sun exposure promotes human health beyond its stimulation of vitamin D production. Here are a few facts about sun exposure:

    Vitamin D deficiency is mostly due to a sun-exposure deficiency. Twenty minutes of whole-body sun exposure can stimulate the skin to produce up to 20,000 IU of vitamin D, and it also causes the production of serotonin, endorphin and nitric oxide, all of which are critical to human health. Here are some facts about the healthful attributes of sun exposure:
    A 20-year study shows that women who actively seek the sun have half the risk of death compared with those who avoid the sun.
    •Men who work outdoors have half the risk of melanoma as those who work indoors.
    •Women who avoid the sun have 10-times the risk of breast cancer as those who embrace the sun.
    •Women who sunbathe regularly have half the risk of death from all causes during a 20-year period compared to those who stay indoors.
    •Sun exposure increases nitric oxide production, which leads to a decrease in heart disease risk.
    •Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential to human survival, and sun exposure is the only natural way to obtain it. Sunbathing can produce up to 20,000 units of vitamin D in 20 minutes of whole-body exposure around noon
    •Sun exposure dramatically improves mood through the production of serotonin and endorphin.
    • Sun exposure increases the production of BDNF, which is vital to human health.

    For references and articles see the Sunlight Institute website:

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