Stress during pregnancy not only affects the mother, but also might make the child more vulnerable to metabolic and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes later in life.
But a new study by Cornell University researchers in the US suggests a simple way to protect the baby: eat more eggs.
The humble fry-up staple stands out for a particular nutrient called choline, which has been shown to play a vital role in fetal and infant brain development. It affects areas responsible for memory and learning. There are 125mg of choline per egg, all found in the yolk.
In the study, published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 24 women in the third trimester of pregnancy were randomly assigned to consume 480mg or 930mg of choline a day for 12 weeks up to delivery.
The women with the higher choline intake showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the placental cord and changes in cortisol-regulating genes in both the placental and fetal tissue.
'The study findings raise the exciting possibility that a higher maternal choline intake may counter some of the adverse effects of prenatal stress on behavioural, neuroendocrine and metabolic development in the offspring,' says Professor Marie Caudill, the study's author.
Previous research showed women with diets low in choline have four times greater risk of having babies with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.
Emerging research also shows choline might have other benefits such as breast cancer prevention; lowering the risk of inflammation linked with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, bone loss, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Test your knowledge about the little-known nutrient here.
1. Choline is found in fat molecules called phospholipids, which do what?
a. inhibit excess serotonin
b. stimulate nerve impulse transmission
c. enable the clotting of blood
2. According to the US Institute of Medicine, the daily recommended intake of choline for an adult is:
a. 700mg for men, 700mg for women
b. 550mg for men, 425mg for women
c. 300mg for men, 250mg for women
3. The best source of choline for vegans is:
a. braised tofu
b. toasted wheat germ
4. Excessive choline (10 to 16 grams per day) can cause:
a. increased salivation
b. fishy body odour
c. you can never get too much
Answers: 1. b; 2. b; 3. b (172mg per serving); 4. a or b.