This key nutrient may protect babies in the womb against long-term effects of COVID-19

By Anastasia Yandulskaya, PhD Candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology

The COVID-19 virus could potentially devastate the future lives of those who haven’t even been born yet. But can adjusting diet during pregnancy help fight the effects of infection on babies in the womb? Scientists say – maybe.

Ticking time bomb

If a pregnant person comes down with a viral infection, the unborn baby may be in trouble. As the parent’s immune system rallies against the disease, it attacks not only the invading virus but another entity that it does not recognize as part of its own body- the fetus. 

Such inflammatory assaults from the immune system can trigger brain development malfunction in fetuses, sometimes resulting in severe mental disorders like schizophrenia. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through the planet and undoubtedly infecting many pregnant people, this spells trouble for future generations.

One step that expecting persons can take to protect their future child’s health is eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. The question is, what kind of food might protect the developing brain from long-term effects of a maternal COVID-19 infection?

A team of scientists at University of Colorado Denver looked for answers. They browsed a mountain of published studies on links between nutrition, respiratory viruses, and brain development. Their search identified three nutrients that may help safeguard the brains of unborn babies exposed to COVID-19. One of those nutrients is even missing from most prenatal vitamins!

Vitamins vs. viruses

Vitamin D was one of the three identified nutrients. This vitamin, usually sourced from sunlight, eggs, and fish, is linked to a score of health benefits, including bone health. Vitamin D is also shown to curb inflammation that the immune system unleashes in response to a viral infection, possibly protecting the fetus developing inside the infected person. 

Another nutrient is already a favorite with OB-GYNs; it has found its way in all prenatal vitamins and even regular women’s vitamins. Folic acid is critical for the proper development of babies’ brains and spinal cords. It also is thought to  help control the amount of inflammation in response to an infection.

Most unexpectedly, the team identified one nutrient that is not routinely found in vitamin supplements. Choline is a food-derived chemical that helps make essential  substances in the body. One of those substances is acetylcholine, a brain chemical that helps control how our brain cells and muscles communicate with each other. 

Egg yolks are a good source of nutritional choline.

The team found a study that induced immune inflammation in pregnant mice and then fed them choline supplements. Dietary choline alleviated anxiety in baby mice after they were born. In humans, choline supplements to pregnant women with respiratory infections improved fetal brain development. After the babies were born, they maintained better attention and bond more with their parents. This study demonstrated that choline supplements may fight the effects of a viral infection during pregnancy and help ensure normal infant behavior.  

Caution advised

We don’t know yet whether choline and other nutrients truly protect fetuses in the womb from the immune system response unleashed by the COVID-19 infection. Humans, especially children, are difficult to study and experiment on- they aren’t mice! There are ongoing trials studying the protective effects of Vitamin D and choline for mental development, but children born during the pandemic aren’t old enough yet to be diagnosed with any mental disorders. 

However, evidence from the studies of respiratory infections similar to COVID-19 suggests that choline, Vitamin D, and folic acid might shield the developing brain from the aftermath of a severe viral infection. Luckily, these nutrients are easily accessible over the counter.

Note: This article is intended to foster interest in the nutritional needs and requirements of pregnant individuals. Please see a registered dietitian or primary care provider for nutritional guidance.

Reference: Hoffman, M. Camille, et al. “Maternal nutrients and effects of gestational COVID-19 infection on fetal brain development.” Clinical Nutrition ESPEN (2021).

Peer-edited by Ryesa Mansoor, BSPH

Photo credits: Cover photo by Jellybee on Unsplash, text Photo by Önder Örtel on Unsplash

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