By Dr. Mercola
Folic acid is perhaps the most well known B vitamin, and is especially important for pregnant women to avoid certain birth defects.
Now researchers have highlighted the importance of another member of the B vitamin complex – choline – which they say may one day be recommended for all pregnant women, the way folic acid is today.
What is Choline?
Choline is an essential nutrient your body makes in small amounts, however you must consume it through your diet to get enough. In adults, choline helps keep your cell membranes functioning properly, plays a role in nerve communications, prevents the buildup of homocysteine in your blood (elevated levels are linked to heart disease) and reduces chronic inflammation.
In pregnant women, choline plays an equally, if not more, important role, helping to prevent certain birth defects, such as spina bifida, and playing a role in brain development.
Prior research has concluded that choline intake during pregnancy "super-charged" the brain activity of animals in utero, indicating that it may boost cognitive function, improve learning and memory, and even diminish age-related memory decline and the brain's vulnerability to toxins during childhood, as well as conferring protection later in life.1
It's recommended that pregnant women consume 450 milligrams of choline a day, but the new study found this may not be enough…
Double the Recommended Amount of Choline During Pregnancy Protects Baby from Stress, Metabolic Disorders and More
The new research, published in The FASEB Journal,2 found the consumption of 930 mg of choline in the third trimester of pregnancy was linked to a 33 percent lower concentration of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to those who consumed 430 mg a day.
It's known that babies exposed to high levels of cortisol in utero, such as might occur if a woman is under extreme stress, facing anxiety or suffering from depression, have an increased risk of stress-related and metabolic disorders. The researchers believe the beneficial impact of choline on lowering cortisol may protect the baby later in life from mental health conditions, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Interestingly, the higher choline intake led to changes in epigenetic markers in the fetus. Specifically, it affected markers that regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls hormone production and activity. The higher intake of choline contributed to a more stable HPA axis, which in turn meant lower cortisol levels in the fetus. The changes in fetal genetic expression will likely continue into adulthood, where they play a role in disease prevention.
Epigenetic Changes May Last for Generations
One of the most intriguing aspects of epigenetics is that these changes are often passed down through generations. This was first shown by the research of Francis M. Pottenger, Jr., M.D., who conducted studies on cats in the 1930s. He found that cats fed a healthy, raw-food diet thrived, while those fed on a primarily cooked-meat diet developed degenerative diseases – and those changes continued on through three generations.
Each generation of "junk-food" cats got progressively sicker, until they could no longer reproduce and eventually died off completely by the fourth generation.
Just this year, a study on rats showed those exposed to chemicals or foods that raise estrogen levels during pregnancy produce daughters that have a higher than normal risk for breast cancer – and that risk is passed on to the next two generations.3 It was not genetic mutations that were passed on, but rather epigenetic alterations that modulate the expression of your genes, similar to what was found in the FASEB Journal study.
You Have the Ability to Change Inherited Epigenetic Alterations
The good news about all of this is that even if you inherited a certain increased disease risk from your mother or grandmother (or you think you passed one on to your child), it is not set in stone. As you age, your genome does not change but your epigenome changes dramatically, especially during critical periods of life, such as adolescence. It is influenced by physical and emotional stresses, and lifestyle factors, which, depending on their effects, may either optimize your genetic expression for health or make it favor disease development.
There are literally new epigenetic discoveries being made every day, and it's becoming quite clear that eating healthy foods is one of the most powerful steps you can take to optimize your genetic expression.
Certain foods, such as broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, garlic, and onions contain substances that activate tumor suppressor genes and deactivate cancer-associated genes (oncogenes). And now we see that choline appears to influence cortisol production in utero. Your best bet is to take advantage of the many epigenetic influencers in your diet by eating a wide variety of whole foods…
For additional tips, I suggest you read through my comprehensive and recently revised nutrition plan, which will give tools for eating healthy, dealing with stress, and living a lifestyle that will support your epigenetic health.
What are the Best Dietary Sources of Choline?
If you're currently pregnant, it seems prudent to make sure your diet contains plenty of choline-rich foods, as this will be your primary source of this essential nutrient (most prenatal vitamins do not contain choline). Unfortunately for many vegetarians, animal foods like eggs and meat are some of the best sources of choline, so if you're a vegan or vegetarian who does not consume any animal foods, you may be at risk of deficiency.
The following chart shows some of the best choline sources to help you choose your foods wisely:4
Food Serving Total Choline (mg) Beef liver, pan fried 3 ounces 355 Wheat germ, toasted 1 cup 172 Egg 1 large 126 Beef, trim cut, cooked 3 ounces 67 Brussel sprouts, cooked 1 cup 63 Broccoli, cooked 1 cup, chopped 62 Salmon 3 ounces 56 Milk, skim 8 fl oz. 38 Peanut butter, smooth 2 tablespoons 20