Get your choline

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Study Eating eggs and meat during pregnancy may cut the risk of hypertension in offspring

Animal products are richer sources of choline.
Animal products are richer sources of choline.

Taking greater amounts of choline — a nutrient found in eggs and meat — during pregnancy may lower an infant’s vulnerability to stress-related illnesses, such as mental health disturbances, and chronic conditions, such as hypertension, later in life, according to a study.

Nutrition scientists and obstetricians at Cornell University and the University of Rochester Medical Centre found that higher than normal amounts of choline in the diet during pregnancy changed epigenetic markers — modifications on our DNA that tell our genes to switch on or off — in the foetus. While epigenetic markers don’t change our genes, they make a permanent imprint by dictating their fate: If a gene is not expressed 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 or HPA axis, which controls virtually all hormone activity in the body, including the production of the hormone cortisol that reflects our response to stress and regulates our metabolism, among other things.

More choline in the mother’s diet led to a more stable HPA axis and consequently less cortisol in the foetus. As with many aspects of our health, stability is a very good thing: 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 are likely continue to have a long-lasting influence on adult life,” says Eva K. Pressman, M.D., study author. “While our results won’t change practice at this point, the idea that maternal choline intake could essentially change foetal genetic expression into adulthood is quite novel,” the researcher adds.

A long-time collaborator with researchers at Cornell, Pressman studied 26 pregnant women in their third trimester who were assigned to take 480 mg of choline per day, an amount slightly above the standard recommendation of 450 mg per day, or about double that amount, 930 mg per day.

The choline was derived from the diet and from supplements and was consumed up until delivery. Measurements of cord blood and samples from the placenta showed that increased choline, via the addition of methyl groups, altered epigenetic markers that govern cortisol-regulating genes. Higher choline lessened the expression of these genes, leading to 33 per cent lower cortisol in the blood of babies whose mom’s consumed 930 mg per day.

Study researchers say the findings raise the exciting possibility that choline may be used therapeutically in cases where excess maternal stress from anxiety, depression or other prenatal conditions might make the foetal HPA axis more reactive and more likely to release greater than expected amounts of cortisol.

While more research is needed, Caudill stated that her message to pregnant women would be to consume a diet that includes choline rich foods such as eggs, lean meat, beans and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. For women who limit their consumption of animal products, which are richer sources of choline than plant foods, she added that supplemental choline may be warranted as choline is generally absent in prenatal vitamin supplements.

“One day we might prescribe choline in the same way we prescribe folate to all pregnant women,” notes Pressman.

The findings appeared in an early study in The FASEB Journal .





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