Is it Pregnancy Brain or a Lack of Choline?

choline in pregnancy

What is Choline?

Feeling that pregnancy or ‘mom/parent brain’ extra hard recently? You could be lacking choline in your diet! Choline is a nutrient that is found in many foods. Your brain and nervous system need it to regulate memory, mood, muscle control, and other functions.  It is considered an essential brain building nutrient for pregnant people and young children. Unfortunately, 94% of pregnant persons in the U.S. are not reaching their recommended daily choline amount of 450 mg/day [Korsmo].

Why is Choline important for pregnancy?

Choline and pregnancy
An overview of the effects of maternal choline intake during pregnancy on physiological processes and health outcomes.

During your baby’s development, large amounts of choline are essential for the rapid cell division and growth taking place. Your baby is growing so quickly, that choline is crucial for the development of fetal cells, especially for areas like the hippocampus region of the brain which is in charge of learning, memory, and attention. “Studies in animals and humans have shown that supplementing the maternal diet with additional choline improves several pregnancy outcomes and protects against certain neural and metabolic insults” [Korsmo]. 

Something extraordinary about choline is that parents can potentially decrease their child’s risk of disease and reactivity to stress if they take appropriate amounts of choline during pregnancy! A study found that newborns of parents who consumed 930 vs. 480 mg choline/day had low cord blood cortisol, the primary stress hormone. 

When newborns and people in general are stressed, it increases the risk of depression, hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and immunological disorders later in life [Xiong]. Newborns and children with less stress activity are less likely to develop  mental and cardio-metabolic diseases [Chen]. The placenta also improves its performance leading to improved fetal growth when it has adequate amounts of choline [Jiang]!  

Who is more at Risk for Inadequate Choline?

The risk of inadequate choline status might be greater in pregnant and lactating people who do not take folic acid supplements, those with low vitamin B12 status, and those with a common variant in methylenetetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase (MTHFR). Although all pregnant and lactating people should be mindful that they are getting healthy amounts of choline everyday. 

How much Choline should you get a day?

Below I have included a chart from the Institute of Medicine about how much choline different individuals of different age demographics should have each day.  Those who are pregnant should consume 450 mg of choline a day while those who are lactating should consume 550mg of choline each day.  

choline RDA
Adequate Intakes (AIs) for Choline [Institute of Medicine]

How can you get more Choline in your diet?

As a doula and birth worker, I recommend all of my families try to get their vitamins and nutrients from whole food diets because our bodies can process nutrients from whole foods easier than synthetic supplements. You can get more choline in your diet by eating a whole foods diet with foods that naturally have choline like liver, egg yolks, and red meat, salmon, cod, tilapia, chicken breast, and legumes. To show you a few examples of choline rich foods, I attached a table from the US Dept. of agriculture that shows some of the best foods to consume to increase your daily amount of choline. 

choline rich foods
Choline rich foods table [U.S. Department of Agriculture]

In conclusion

Now that you know how crucial choline is to the development of your baby, the health & function of the placenta, and your baby’s long term health, do you think you will become more invested to make sure you are getting your recommended daily amount of choline during pregnancy and lactation? If you have any additional questions about getting the right amounts of nutrition throughout your pregnancy and lactation journey, I would be sure to talk with your midwife or OBGYN about the best ways to do so!

Resources

Chen, Man, and Lubo Zhang. “Epigenetic Mechanisms in Developmental Programming of Adult Disease.” Drug Discovery Today, vol. 16, no. 23-24, 2011, pp. 1007–1018., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drudis.2011.09.008.

Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1998.


Jiang X., Jones S., Andrew B.Y., Ganti A., Malysheva O.V., Giallourou N., Brannon P.M., Roberson M.S., Caudill M.A. Choline Inadequacy Impairs Trophoblast Function and Vascularization in Cultured Human Placental Trophoblasts. J. Cell. Physiol. 2014;229:1016–1027. doi: 10.1002/jcp.24526.

Korsmo, Hunter W., et al. “Choline: Exploring the Growing Science on Its Benefits for Moms and Babies.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 8, 2019, p. 1823., https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081823.


U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Centralexternal link disclaimer, 2019.


Xiong, Fuxia, and Lubo Zhang. “Role of the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis in Developmental Programming of Health and Disease.” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, vol. 34, no. 1, 2013, pp. 27–46., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2012.11.002.


OKC Birth Doula Jenni Jenkins


Jenni Jenkins – Sekine is an Oklahoma City Bereavement, Birth, & Postpartum doula who serves her Central Oklahoma  community.   She is also a midwifery assistant with Holistic Birthing Services and planning to begin her student midwifery journey in 2022. 

Jenni has been a Thrive Mama Collective Member since 2017.  Jenni is also the creator & facilitator of the Kaleidoscope OKC LGBTQ Family Support Group & the Nurture Oklahoma Live Interview Series.

To learn more about Jenni, please click here.