More than 25 years of research in laboratory rats consistently shows that choline supplementation to the maternal diet delivers life-long cognitive benefits to rat pups. Now a new study shows pregnant women are rewarded with similar brain benefits when they supplement with enough choline. Plus, the cognitive benefits last well into the school-age years.
The important role of choline during pregnancy and beyond
Pregnant women need an optimal intake of choline to support the health of the placenta, which transfers nutrients and oxygen to the growing fetus, removes waste products, produces hormones and supports immune function.
The placenta has a heavy workload throughout the prenatal period, and choline helps keep it in peak form.
Choline is also a precursor of acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter that regulates nerve growth and function in the developing fetal brain. After birth, the information processing center of the brain (the hippocampus) continues to develop and doesn’t resemble the adult structure until about 4 years of age, so choline is critical during this period as well.
A prenatal choline supplement makes baby’s brain better
In their recently published study,1 Cornell University researchers discovered that women who supplement with enough choline to achieve a higher intake during the third trimester of pregnancy – a time of rapid brain development – deliver lasting neuroprotective effect to their babies.
The study was a randomized, controlled clinical trial with 24 healthy pregnant women in their third trimester recruited from maternity clinics throughout Ithaca, New York. The women agreed to follow a strict feeding protocol, including consuming only study-provided foods and beverages and eating at least five meals per week at the clinic site.
All the women consumed the standard study diet, which provided 380 mg/day of choline, and took the same basic prenatal supplements like a multivitamin and omega-3 DHA. Next, the women were randomly assigned to add either a 100-mg or 550-mg choline supplement every day until delivery. In this way, the groups achieved a total daily choline intake of either 480 mg or 930 mg, respectively. Cognitive functions were then assessed in the 24 infants every few months during the first year of life.
Results indicate that reaction times at all time points measured were significantly faster for infants born to mothers who consumed 930 mg/day of choline compared to those who consumed the lower amount. What’s more, when women consumed the lower amount (480 mg/day) for a longer period of time, their infants had faster reaction times. This suggests that even modest increases in prenatal choline intake as part of a healthy diet have cognitive benefits in infants.
Prenatal choline benefits last through school-aged years
To see whether the brain benefits of prenatal choline extend beyond the first year of life, the Cornell researchers completed cognitive assessments on the 24 children when they were 7 years old. Results reveal lasting benefits from the prenatal choline on the childrens’ attention, memory, and problem solving skills, but only when it was consumed in the higher amount.2
While similar brain benefits have been reported in previous observational studies, the authors note that this is the first randomized controlled trial to show that a higher maternal choline intake has brain benefits that last into the school-age years.
A smarter strategy for pregnant women to get enough choline
- Know your target numbers. The recommended intake for choline during pregnancy is at least 450 mg/day. During breastfeeding, choline needs jump to at least 550 mg/day. The upper safety limit is 3,000 mg/day for teen girls and 3,500 mg/day for women.
- Add more choline-rich foods to your daily plate. Almost all Americans, including pregnant women, fail to consume enough choline based on national nutrition survey data.3 Adding more choline-rich foods like eggs, lean meat and milk products to your diet can help.
- Check your prenatal vitamin. It’s a good bet that your prenatal vitamin doesn’t include choline. If it does, the amount is likely to be too low (in the 50-mg range), especially if it’s a once daily tablet or capsule.
- Add a choline supplement. You can help fill any choline gap with a standalone choline supplement like Choline SR 300mg.* It’s a perfect complement to a typical prenatal multivitamin. And, don’t forget to keep your choline intake high while breastfeeding to help fully nourish baby’s developing brain.
- Talk to your doctor about your choline intake. Both the American Medical Association and the American Pediatric Association are on a mission to educate doctors to talk to their patients about the importance of choline for fetal and infant health. If your doctor doesn’t start a conversation about getting enough choline during pregnancy, consider asking for a referral to a registered dietitian.
2. Wallace TC, Blusztajn JK, Caudill MA, et al. Choline: the underconsumed and underappreciated essential nutrient. Nutr Today. 2018;53(6):240-253. PMID: 30853718.
3. US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/.