A recent joint study with Cornell and Rochester Universities reports that mothers-to-be can consume choline—a nutrient found in meat, eggs, and to a lesser degree vegetables—to reduce their infant’s risk of developing various diseases. Most notably, a well-balanced maternal diet rich in choline can help improve the infant’s stress response, mental health, and even chronic conditions like hypertension later in life.
“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,” says study author Eva K. Pressman. “The idea that maternal choline intake could essentially change fetal genetic expression into adulthood is quite novel.”
Choline Affects Gene Expression
Pressman collaborated with University of Rochester Medical Center professor Marie Caudill in studying the effects of choline in 26 pregnant women in their third trimester. Researchers assigned the women to take either 480 mg or 930 mg of choline daily until delivery, through diet or supplementation. Both amounts are above the Institute of Medicine’s daily recommended amount of 425 mg for women and 550 mg for men.
By measuring cord blood and samples from placenta, the researchers determined that the mother’s choline intake increased the amount of DNA methylation by providing methyl groups for the process that adds to DNA. Adding even one methyl group to DNA can change an infant’s epigenome. Epigenetic markers govern the genes responsible for regulating the stress-response hormone cortisol. Mothers who took in greater amounts of choline softened those genes’ expression; their baby’s blood therefore had 33 percent lower levels of cortisol.
Maternal Diet Affects Child’s Adult Health
When pregnant mothers experience unhealthy levels of anxiety, depression, or other stressful conditions, the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis becomes more reactive and releases excessive amounts of cortisol. In the long run, this could lead to mental health disturbances and, because cortisol also affects metabolism, even chronic conditions like hypertension.
“One day we might prescribe choline in the same way we prescribe folate to all pregnant women,” says 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.”
And the research reminds us about how important being healthy while pregnant can be. While most mothers today are aware that a healthful diet is essential while pregnant, it’s important to note that a healthy pregnancy diet should actually begin long before conception.
Vegetables with Choline
For vegan and vegetarian individuals, here is a list of choline-rich vegetables:
- Brussels sprouts (100 g cooked has 40.6 mg of choline as well as vitamins C, A, and K)
- Broccoli (100 g cooked has 40.1 mg of choline as well as folate, vitamin C, and beta carotene)
- Tomatoes (100 g of paste has 38.5 mg of choline as well as beta carotene, niacin, vitamin C, and antioxidant lycopene)
- Green peas (100 g cooked has 27.5 mg of choline as well as fiber, calcium, and phosphorus)
- Spinach (100 g chopped has 24.8 mg of choline as well as lots of fiber, beta carotene, and iron)