Nutrition and brain development

As early as 5 weeks into pregnancy, a baby’s brain begins to develop. Since 70% of brain growth will occur while still in the womb, the link between maternal nutrition and brain development can’t be overstated.

What nutrients are the most helpful for brain growth?

It’s safe to assume that just about any vitamin and mineral can help your baby’s development, but there are a number of nutrients that encourage brain growth more than others.

  • Protein
    Protein doesn’t just help build strong muscles, but also contributes to brain development. Protein is used to make enzymes and hormones, which the body’s systems use to communicate with one another. Protein is found from many sources, like meat, fish, whole grains, and dairy products, among other places.
  • Choline
    During pregnancy, a mother’s choline reserves get used up on the developing baby. Choline helps the brain synthesize neurotransmitters and materials for cell membranes, as well as relay nerve signals. Some studies have shown that choline supplements during gestation result in better brain function later in the baby’s life. Eggs, peanuts, and many vegetables are among some strong sources of choline. Choline is found in some prenatal vitamins, and is listed on the label if it’s present.
  • Iron
    Iron is essential for brain functioning as it stimulates the production of myelin – a fatty substance that protects nerves and allows messages to be transmitted more quickly throughout the brain and body. Iron deficiency can impair cognitive function, as well as language and motor development. Red meat, many types of beans, and dark leafy greens, among others, are good sources of iron. Iron is included in just about every prenatal vitamin.
  • Zinc
    Researchers have found that zinc deficiencies lead to problems with DNA, RNA, and the synthesis of protein in the brain. If pregnant women don’t get enough zinc, babies have a higher likelihood of having learning difficulties, lethargy, and apathy, and low zinc levels can lead to mental disorders later in life. Red meat, poultry, beans, and nuts are all good sources of zinc. Zinc is found in most prenatal vitamins.
  • Folate
    Low folate levels during pregnancy can cause defects in the neural tube, which is what the embryo forms in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before it forms a complete central nervous system. Spina bifida and anencephaly are the two most common defects of this type, and both endanger the health of the fetus. Folate is also used for DNA production by every cell in the body. Dark leafy greens and citrus fruits are among the best natural sources of folate. Folate, a part of the B-vitamin group, is found in every prenatal vitamin in its synthetic form, folic acid.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
    Without omega-3 fatty acids, both the brain and the eye cannot develop. They make up parts of the cell membrane and many studies have linked maternal omega-3 consumption during pregnancy to higher visual recognition memory and verbal intelligence scores later on in the baby’s life. Since the body can’t make omega-3 fatty acids on its own, it’s absolutely essential that the mother get an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids like DHA can be found in egg yolks, and in fish, though keeping fish intake at or under 12 ounces a week during pregnancy is recommended. Omega-3 fatty acids and are also often included in prenatal vitamins.

The most critical time for brain development is during pregnancy, and then for the first 3 years following birth. A variety of nutrients contribute to the healthy growth of a baby’s brain. Knowing some of the most important ones can help moms-to-be determine how they want to supplement their nutrition in pregnancy.

  • “Ch. 17: Nutrition During Pregnancy.” ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Apr 2015. Web.
  • “Prenatal Development: How Your Baby Grows During Pregnancy.” ACOG. FAQ156 from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Jun 2015. Web.
  • Jaclyn M Coletta, et al. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy.” Rev Obstet Gynecol. 3(4): 163–171. Web. 2010.
  • B Todorich, et al. “Oligodendrocytes and myelination: the role of iron.” Glia. 57(5):467-78. Web. Apr 2009.
  • “Neural Tube Defects.” MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine, HHS, NIH, Feb 2017. Web.
  • Ruth Williams. “Iron Builds a Better Brain.” The-Scientist. LabX Media Group, Jan 2012. Web.
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