By, Rachel Neifeld, RD, CDN
Folic acid, calcium, iron, vitamin B12: it’s likely that all of these nutrients ring a bell with pregnant women when it comes to the topic of nutrition, but another nutrient that may not come to mind is just as important and is the focus of exciting new research.
A recent study is shedding the spotlight on choline, an essential nutrient that may have a large impact on a newborn’s long-term health. The research, which comes from Cornell University, revealed that choline intake in the third trimester of pregnancy may reduce the risk of a baby developing chronic diseases later in life. The researchers think that choline protects the fetus against the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol, in a mother’s system. Levels of this hormone can often be high in expectant mothers due to anxiety or depression leading to offspring developing stress-induced illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes later in life.
The Cornell study showed that fetus’s of mother’s with higher choline intakes 12 weeks prior to delivery (930 milligrams per day versus 490 milligrams per day) had lower levels of cortisol in the placental chord, which researches hypothesize means better protection against some of the harmful effects of prenatal stress on fetal development.
Not only does adequate choline intake hold promise for decreasing a child’s risk of developing chronic diseases, but it also plays a major role in brain health. Choline is the main component of fat-containing structures in cell membranes (many of these types of cells are found in the brain) and is very important in the structure of acetylcholine-a neurotransmitter that carries messages to and from nerves. Due to this important function, choline has been shown to help fight against mental illness and work with folate to develop memory and learning ability in fetuses and infants. Choline deficiency in pregnant women can even result in birth defects such as spina bifida (low choline levels raise homocysteine- an amino acid that, when elevated in a mother’s blood, can be toxic to fetuses).
So how does a pregnant woman ensure that she’s getting enough of this important nutrient? The answer is found in consuming choline-rich foods such as eggs, beef, chicken breast, cod, cauliflower, and wheat germ. Be sure to consume the egg yolks too, as this is where the choline is found, with two yolks meeting 50% of a pregnant woman’s and 40% of a lactating woman’s choline needs.
Women should aim to get an average of the daily recommendation over the course of a few days or a week with 450 mg/day recommended for pregnant women and even more- 550 mg/day for breastfeeding women. Breastfeeding women require more because the body pulls choline from the mother’s stores to ensure breast milk contains enough of this vital nutrient, leading to a potential deficiency in the mother if she isn’t consuming enough. If you think you may not be getting enough choline, look for a prenatal supplement that contains choline (as not all prenatal do). Even vegetarians and vegans can get adequate amounts with foods such as spinach, potatoes, soybeans, and navy beans.
- Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-08/epr-adh080112.php
- World’s Healthiest Foods Website: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=50