Boosting intake of a nutrient called choline during pregnancy could be the key to decreasing babies’ chances of hypertension and diabetes – for life. That’s the finding from a small study published last week out of Cornell University.
Choline, an essential nutrient similar to the B vitamins, is used in many chemical reactions in the body and is especially important to the central nervous system. It is present in breast milk and routinely added to infant formula, though not common in prenatal vitamins.
Researchers followed a group of 26 third-trimester pregnant women for 12 weeks, providing all of their meals and beverages and monitoring their choline intake. Half of the women consumed the recommended 450 milligrams daily, while the other half took more than double that amount, 930 mg.
Babies born to women taking the higher amount of choline had 33 percent lower concentrations of the hormone cortisol, which is produced in response to stress and raises the body’s blood sugar level, than those whose mothers took less choline. Marie Caudill, Ph.D., RD, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell and lead author of the study, believes the choline impacted the genes involved in cortisol production in the babies, and that the effect should be permanent.
“We would expect that a 33 percent reduction in cortisol concentrations would be enough to [reduce] risk of stress-related diseases throughout life,” says Caudill. “However, we did not follow the babies to assess whether this reduced response to stress was maintained. Additional studies are needed to replicate our study findings and to assess whether this early nutritional manipulation results in changes that last throughout life.”
During pregnancy, Caudill says that choline is especially needed to remove fat from the liver and transport it to other areas of the body, such as the placenta. And animal studies have consistently shown that boosting choline levels in the mother improves lifelong brain function in her offspring.
“We know that there is a high demand for choline during pregnancy and that most women are not consuming the recommended intake levels of 450 mg per day,” says Caudill.
Dietary sources of choline include:
• Egg, 1 large: 125 mg
• Beef steak, 3 oz: 110 mg
• Salmon, 3 oz: 95 mg
• Pork, loin chop, 3 oz: 95 mg
• Chicken breast, 3 oz: 75 mg
• Beef ground, 85% lean, 3 oz: 70 mg
• Milk, 1% low fat, 1 cup: 45 mg
• Baked beans, canned, ½ cup: 40 mg
• Yogurt, low fat, 8 oz: 30 mg
• Broccoli, cooked, ½ cup: 30 mg
• Cauliflower, cooked, ½ cup: 24 mg
Caudill says the boosted choline levels reached by some women in her study were achieved with the help of supplements, and that reaching 930 mg per day would be difficult through diet alone. If further research bears out her findings, supplements could be especially helpful for women experiencing anxiety, depression or even preeclampsia during pregnancy. And while further study is needed to test its potential benefits to Baby, she says there is no harm in mothers taking choline supplements now, as long as they stay below the 3,500 mg per day upper safe level established by the Institute of Medicine.
The study was published online in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.