The study – published in FASEB Journal – suggests that consuming greater amounts of choline, a nutrient found in eggs and meat, during pregnancy may lower an infant's vulnerability to stress-related illnesses, such as mental health disturbances, and chronic conditions, like hypertension, later in life.
Led by Dr Eva Pressman from the University of Rochester Medical Center, USA, the researchers reveal higher-than-normal amounts of choline in the diet during pregnancy changed epigenetic markers – modifications on our DNA that tell our genes to switch on or off – in the fetus, and could lead to help with health in later life.
"The study is important because it shows that a relatively simple nutrient can have significant effects in prenatal life, and that these effects likely continue to have a long-lasting influence on adult life," said Pressman. "While our results won't change practice at this point, the idea that maternal choline intake could essentially change fetal genetic expression into adulthood is quite novel."
The researchers noted that while epigenetic markers don't change our genes, they make a permanent imprint by dictating their fate: If a gene is not expressed – turned on – it's as if it didn't exist.
Pressman said the finding became particularly exciting when her team discovered that the affected markers were those that regulated the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis – which controls virtually all hormone activity in the body, including the production of the hormone cortisol which is implicated in stress and regulates metabolism.
The suggestion is that higher levels of choline in a mother's diet led to a more stable genetic HPA axis and consequently less cortisol in the fetus, say the authors – noting previous research that has shown early exposure to high levels of cortisol can increase a baby's lifelong risk of stress-related and metabolic disorders.