In Perspectives in Health and Healing, students are introduced to the holistic techniques of complementary medicine, including reiki, yoga, shiatsu, and herbal medicine.

Stress is hard on a body. Not the surges of adrenaline that make us instantly braver, smarter and faster, but the niggling, relentless, chronic stress that contributes to everything from heart problems to depression.

As Kathleen Creed Page, professor of biology, has discovered, stress in a pregnant mother can even cause lasting damage in her offspring. Page treated pregnant rats with different stressors and then looked not at the treated mothers, but at their offspring, once the pups had become adults.

"We wanted to know what kind of long-term effects might be occurring during the developmental period, and then what kind of long-term outcomes might there be as this offspring goes into adulthood," Page said.

It turns out that what isn't good for mom isn't good for baby (or rat pup, in this case). In one experiment in which the mother rats were given a stress hormone, the offspring had high levels of stress hormones throughout their lives -- even when they weren't stressed. The in utero exposure had disrupted gene expression during a critical developmental period and led to a lifelong disturbance in the offspring.

The consequences for the offspring didn't end with the rat equivalent of persistent anxiety. Page also found that treated rats showed differences in the hippocampus, a major center of learning and memory in the brain, and were slower to learn. "When you are hyper stressed -- not just exposed to a little bit of adrenaline, but to chronic stress -- it compromises your ability to concentrate and learn," Page said.

In a different study, Page found that another maternal stressor, poor nutrition, also has enduring consequences for the offspring. Adult rats whose pregnant mothers were fed a diet high in saturated fat were more likely to be obese, even if the offspring themselves ate a normal diet throughout their lives. The effect was so strong, in fact, that offspring of mothers fed a high fat diet were more obese than rats that ate a high fat diet throughout their lives but were not exposed prenatally.

"The most serious effector is the prenatal exposure because that's when your genetic regulatory routes are being established," Page said. In other words, at least for rats, you are what your mother ate.

While her research focuses on the physiological effects of stress, Page is also interested in traditional ways for dealing with stress.

In her capstone course Perspectives in Health and Healing, students explore the question "What is health?" Going beyond the definition of health as merely the absence of disease, Page introduces her students to the holistic perspectives and techniques of complementary medicine, including reiki, yoga, shiatsu, and herbal medicine.  

Updated March 15, 2010


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