Choline is a critical nutrient during pregnancy that has only recently begun to be more understood. While it is not technically a vitamin by definition, it is grouped into the B-vitamins because it is most similar to this group in its structure and function.
During pregnancy, choline plays a very important role in optimizing health for both mom and baby. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recognized choline as an important “brain-building nutrient”. If you are pregnant or are trying to conceive, you want to be sure you are getting enough choline.
What is Choline?
Choline is a vitamin similar to the B-vitamin folate, or folic acid, in some of its health functions. While you probably are aware of the benefits of folate especially for its role in preventing neural tube defects, you may not hear about choline and pregnancy quite as much. In fact, less than 10% of pregnant women are getting enough choline in their diet. However, the benefits of choline during pregnancy are numerous.
Choline is an essential nutrient produced naturally in our bodies, but not in adequate amounts. Therefore, it is necessary to get some choline through your diet or through a supplement even if you aren’t pregnant. The adequate intake or AI for choline is 425mg/day. However, during pregnancy, choline requirements increase to a minimum of 450mg, and up to 930mg/day may be necessary for some pregnant women. The upper limit is 3,500 mg/day. Too much choline from a supplement can cause a fishy body odor and low blood pressure. You cannot get too much from food alone.
During pregnancy, your body has an increased demand for choline. However, many women do not absorb choline efficiently from their diets. In fact, approximately half of women have a genetic variation in which they require more choline than the minimum of 450 mg in order to meet their needs. If this is the case for you, you may need more choline-rich foods in your diet and possibly a supplement to meet your needs.
Benefits of Choline During Pregnancy
1. Brain and Nervous System Development. One of the most important functions of choline is in developing your baby’s brain and nervous system. Research has found that babies born to mothers with adequate choline intakes performed better on memory tests later in life. It is crucial for other aspects of brain development such as attention, focus, processing speed, visual acuity, and self-regulation. Getting enough choline at the early stages and throughout your entire pregnancy is recommended. If you miss the critical stages of development it is harder to play “catch up.” Choline is equally as important in later periods of pregnancy when the memory center of the brain, called the hippocampus, is developing. It essentially assists in sending important signals across channels in the brain, helping it receive and interpret critical messages more quickly. It is crucial for helping memories to form properly.
2. Neural Tube Development. Spina bifida is one of the most common types of neural tube defects and occurs in the first trimester as the spinal cord is developing. Choline works closely with folate to properly close your baby’s neural tube. Therefore, choline is needed in addition to adequate folate to prevent infant neural tube defects. Both folate and choline are involved in different reactions that create nervous system connections and proper gene expression. Choline helps your baby’s nerves to properly develop and communicate with each other. Getting enough choline in your diet as early as possible in your pregnancy can help to ensure a healthy neural tube development.
3. Placental Health. The placenta is a critical organ during pregnancy and is the primary way your baby receives essential nutrients from you. A healthy, functioning placenta ensures an adequate supply of nutrients and oxygen is delivered to your growing baby. The placenta can only function properly if there is adequate blood flow from the placenta to the fetus. Choline helps to build blood vessels in the placenta so that nutrients and oxygen can transfer easily to your baby. It also helps to speed up the transport of nutrients directly, so that your baby is getting everything they need to grow. The placenta is such an amazing organ and in getting enough choline, you are helping it to function at its best.
Choline Food Sources
It is possible to get enough choline in your diet, depending on your individual needs. The majority of choline-rich foods are animal foods. It is plentiful in eggs, liver, beef, chicken, and soybeans. Choline is found in lesser amounts in other foods such as kidney beans, nuts, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, Brussels sprouts, and mushrooms. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you want to be sure you are eating enough choline-rich, plant-based foods. The two top choline food sources are liver and eggs. For example, just one egg provides 200mg, which is close to half of the minimum requirement of 450mg per day. Additionally, just 3 oz of beef liver provides 356mg of choline. However, if you don’t eat eggs or liver regularly, it may be difficult to get in enough choline through diet alone.
If you are not eating enough choline-rich foods on a daily basis, it is recommended to take a supplement to help fill in the gaps. Choline is found in supplements as a single nutrient, in combination with a B-complex vitamin, or as part of a prenatal vitamin. The amount of choline in supplements can vary anywhere from 10-250 mg. The three most common forms of choline present in dietary supplements include choline bitartrate, phosphatidylcholine, and lecithin.
Getting enough choline will help support your baby’s development in more ways than one. If you need more nutrition guidance and support in your pregnancy journey, request an initial consultation. I’d love to help guide you on the path to a healthy family.
Vicki Kobliner, MS, RDN, CD-N is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Holcare Nutrition. Vicki employs a functional nutrition approach in her work with infants through adults with chronic illnesses, digestive disorders, food allergies, ADHD and autism. Her passion is helping developing families optimize preconception, prenatal and first years of life to help them do all they can to have healthy, thriving children in the era of childhood chronic illness.