Research suggests the nutrient choline - found in eggs and meat - may be as important for pregnant women as folic acid, as it appears to lower an infant's vulnerability to mental health disturbances later in life.
The new study, appearing in The FASEB Journal, shows that choline in the diet during pregnancy changed epigenetic markers (modifications on our DNA that tell our genes to switch on or off) in the fetus. While epigenetic markers don't change our genes, they do dictate their fate: if a gene is not expressed (turned on) it's as if it didn't exist.
The finding became particularly exciting when researchers discovered that the affected markers were those that regulated the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls virtually all hormone activity in the body, including the production of the hormone cortisol that reflects our response to stress.
The researchers say more choline in the mother's diet led to a more stable HPA axis and consequently less cortisol in the fetus. Past research has shown that early exposure to high levels of cortisol, often a result of a mother's anxiety or depression, can increase a baby's lifelong risk of stress-related and metabolic disorders.
"The study is important because it shows that a relatively simple nutrient can have significant effects in prenatal life, and that these effects likely continue to have a long-lasting influence on adult life," said study author Eva K. Pressman, from the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Pressman, who advises pregnant women every day, says choline isn't something people think a lot about because it is already present in many things we eat - eggs, lean meat, beans and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli - and there is usually no concern of choline deficiency. But for women who limit their consumption of animal products, choline supplementation may be warranted.
"One day we might prescribe choline in the same way we prescribe folate to all pregnant women," notes Pressman. "It is cheap and has virtually no side effects at the doses provided in this study. In the future, we could use choline to do even more good than we are doing right now."
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Source: University of Rochester