This article originally appeared on transforming-science.com.
Scientists at the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute are developing a “whole health” message for pregnant mothers emphasizing evidence-based, nutritional research that empowers them to make their own decisions on everything from drinking to dietary choices.
Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. In the face of recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to abstain from drinking alcohol when pregnant and even when considering having a child, researchers at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) at the North Carolina Research Campus urge women to educate themselves about the overall effects of alcohol and specific essential nutrients in their diet.
To Drink or Not to Drink When Pregnant
One of the first recommendations an expectant mother receives is to abstain from alcohol. The CDC stated that between 2011 and 2013, ten percent of pregnant women in the United States reported drinking during their pregnancy. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) researcher Philip May, Ph.D., who leads FASD research at the UNC NRI, believes that estimate to be low based on a number of studies in Europe and Canada that have used biomarkers to measure actual alcohol use and two studies published in 2014 and 2015 that he led. Those studies of first-grade children in two cities in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions of the United States indicated that the prevalence of FASD is significantly higher in the general population than most people previously believed.
Fatty Acids and Brain Development
Alcohol is not the only dietary choice that may impact a child’s development. UNC NRI researcher Carol Cheatham, Ph.D., a developmental cognitive neuroscientist, studies the connection between omega-3 fatty acids and healthy brain function in babies and young children. Since fatty acids aid in healthy brain development and prevention of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, consuming these vital nutrients is critical for brain health both early and late in life.
B vitamins for the Brain
Along with fatty acids, B vitamins like choline and folate play a role in brain development in utero and throughout a person’s life. NRI Director Steven Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., was one of the first to realize the importance of choline in a mothers’ diet. Choline is necessary for fetal brain development and nerve cell division, a key process in the development of the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. Zeisel found that nearly 50 percent of women do not produce enough choline, and eating foods high in choline is vital during pregnancy. Zeisel has shown that low maternal choline led to decreased cortical development, which negatively impacts performance on cognitive tests.
Just like the choice to abstain from alcohol and eat foods with omega-3 fatty acids, maintaining high choline levels during pregnancy and throughout a child’s life is another factor in assuring healthy development. In collaboration with a research team in Sweden, Zeisel and his lab observed improved academic performances in 324 Swedish teens who had higher blood choline levels than lower-performing students demonstrating that choline is linked to improved cognition for teenagers.
UNC NRI researcher Natalia Krupenko, Ph.D., studies the role of folate in human health, specifically in connection to neural tube defects that are caused by folate deficiency. The body cannot produce folate on its own, so the vitamin must be included in the diet. Dark green leafy vegetables, fruit, and legumes are rich sources of folate. According to Krupenko, getting the recommended daily allowance of folate can help prevent these birth defects.
The bottom line
The health and dietary choices of an expectant mother and her child are interconnected beginning at conception, during pregnancy and throughout life. Scientists at the UNC NRI are developing evidence-based, nutritional research that gives women a “whole health” perspective that empowers them to understand the effects of alcohol and essential nutrients and make the best decisions for the lifelong health and development of their children.