Could steak and eggs be the perfect meal for pregnant women? A new study has found that extra choline, a nutrient found in foods such as eggs and lean meat, may protect offspring from stress-related illnesses for a lifetime. Researchers suggested that in the future choline may be prescribed to pregnant women in the same way folate, or folic acid, is prescribed today.
Choline during pregnancy
For pregnant women, folic acid/folate has been referred to as a “rock star nutrient and “pregnancy superhero.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that women take folic acid, a B vitamin, for at least a month before becoming pregnant and daily while pregnant. This daily dose of folic acid has been shown to help prevent birth defects in the brain and spinal cord.
Some of the latest research on choline, also a B vitamin, this nutrient is as essential as folate for pregnant women. Previous research suggested that adequate choline during the critical period of brain growth and development in the fetus has major long-term implications on intelligence, memory and mood regulation. Now, scientists at Cornell University and the University of Rochester Medical Center may have found out why choline is so important during pregnancy.
More choline, less cortisol
Researchers assigned 26 pregnant women in their third trimester to take either 480 mg of choline a day, or about 930 mg per day until delivery. Choline intake was sourced from both diet and supplements. They found that higher levels of choline changed epigenetic markers in the fetus, meaning the nutrient modified DNA that switches genes on and off.
The particular genes expressed by extra choline regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis, which controls virtually all hormone activity in the body, including the production of cortisol, the hormone that controls the stress response and regulates metabolism. More choline in the mother’s diet led to a more stable HPA axis and less cortisol in the fetus.
Previous research has found that early exposure to high levels of cortisol because of a mother’s anxiety or depression can increase an infant’s lifelong risk of stress-related and metabolic disorders. After delivery, measurements of blood samples from the umbilical cord and placenta showed 33 percent lower cortisol in the blood of babies whose mothers consumed 930 mg of choline per day.
Bright future for choline
“One day we might prescribe choline in the same way we prescribe folate to all pregnant women,” said lead author Eva K. Pressman, MD, director of the high-risk pregnancy program at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “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.”
Pregnant women are advised to get at least 450 mg of choline a day. Breastfeeding mothers should get 550 mg. Prenatal vitamins contain choline and many choline supplements are on the market. But it’s possible to get carried away with choline supplements. Too much choline can lead to a fishy body odor, vomiting and decreased blood pressure.
As with most essential nutrients, real food is always the best source. In addition to a prenatal vitamin, pregnant women should eat these choline-rich foods:
- Eggs – 126 mg./egg
- Tofu – 100 mg./3 ounces
- lean beef – 67 mg./3oz.
- Brussels sprouts – 62 mg./cup cooked
- Cauliflower – 62 mg./ ¾ cup cooked
- navy beans – 48 mg./½ cup cooked
- peanut butter – 20 mg./2 tablespoons
- skim milk – 38 mg./cup