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Why Pregnant Women Need More Choline

Eggs are a good source of choline

Choline is a nutrient you don’t hear much about, but if researchers at Cornell University have their way, at least pregnant women will become more familiar with it. That’s because increasing their intake of choline during pregnancy could have a positive effect on their children later in life.

What is special about choline?

In 1998, choline was officially recognized as a member of the B vitamin family. Choline is present in every human cell, and it performs a number of critical functions, including:

  • Keeps cell membranes functioning optimally so nutrients can enter and waste can leave your cells
  • Allows nerves to communicate with muscles
  • Prevents the accumulation of a damaging substance called homocysteine, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis
  • Reduces chronic inflammation

Now, according to Marie Caudill, associate professor of nutritional sciences, and Xinyin Jiang, a graduate student, there is another benefit associated with choline. They believe pregnant women should take choline to reduce the chances their children will develop high blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes later in life.

Pregnant women need more choline
The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine set the current recommended intake of choline for women at 425 mg and at 450 mg for pregnant women. In this study, third-trimester pregnant women consumed either 930 mg or 480 mg of choline. Those in the 930-mg group gave birth to infants who had 33% lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone also raises blood sugar levels.

According to Caudill, “A dampening of the baby’s response to stress as a result of mom consuming extra choline during pregnancy would be expected to reduce the risk of stress-related diseases such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes throughout the life of the child.”

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Caudill explained that choline appears to change the expression patterns of genes that are involved in the production of cortisol. More research is needed to verify the findings and to determine any long-term effects.

It has already been established that the need for choline during pregnancy is high. In fact, the concentration of choline in amniotic fluid is 10 times greater than levels in maternal blood. Choline is necessary during early pregnancy for growth of the placenta and the mother’s kidneys and uterus, while fetal organ growth demands large amounts of choline during the third trimester.

Some research has also indicated that choline may have a role in reducing the risk of certain birth defects, specifically neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. In a study published in Nutrition Reviews, investigators reported that pregnant women who consumed the least amount of choline had four times the risk of giving birth to a child with a neural tube defect when compared with women who had the highest intake.

Despite the importance of choline during pregnancy, this nutrient is not found in all prenatal vitamins. Some food sources of choline include

  • Chicken liver (247 mg in 3 oz)
  • Smoked sockeye salmon (3 oz, 187 mg)
  • Eggs (125 mg)
  • Quinoa (60 mg ½ cup uncooked)
  • Toasted wheat germ (50 mg, 2 Tbs)
  • Cauliflower (24 mg, ½ cup)

Nutritional needs change during pregnancy, and the results of this study indicate that pregnant women may need more choline, especially for the future health of their children.

Caudill M. Pre- and postnatal health: evidence of increased choline needs. J Am Diet Assoc 2010; 110(8): 1198-1206
Cheng RK et al. Prenatal choline supplementation alters the timing, emotion, and memory performance (TEMP) of adult male and female rats as indexed by differential reinforcement of low-rate schedule behavior. Learn Mem 2008; 15(3): 153-62
Cornell University
Zeisel D. Choline: an essential nutrient for public health. Nutr Rev 2009; 67(11): 615-23

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