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Brainteaser: How can a mother’s diet protect the brain health of their grandchildren?

New findings from a Monash University study suggest that the brain health of children and even grandchildren could be bolstered by mothers who consume apples and herbs during the early stages of pregnancy. These findings underscore the impact a mother’s diet can have on more than just her immediate offspring.

The fascinating research, conducted by the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute and published in Nature Cell Biology, sheds new light on the interplay between diet, genetics, and brain health. It points to certain foods as potential allies in the fight against the deterioration of brain function.

The team of researchers led by Professor Roger Pocock utilized Caenorhabditis elegans, commonly known as roundworms, as their genetic model. This choice was informed by the remarkable similarity shared between many of the worm’s genes and those found in humans, allowing the team to draw insights applicable to human biology.

Connection between mother’s diet and brain health

Through this study, they discovered that a molecule commonly found in apples and various herbs, such as basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage, can help maintain the brain’s integral communication network.

The team’s focus revolved around nerve cells in the brain that connect and communicate with each other over a staggering total length of about 850,000 kilometers.

This vast network is made up of axons, cables that need essential materials for proper functioning and survival. These materials are transported along microtubules, a key component of the axon’s internal structure.

“A malfunction that makes the axons fragile can lead to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration,” explained Professor Pocock. His team explored this by using a genetic model with fragile axons that deteriorate as the organism ages. “We asked whether natural products found in the diet can stabilize these axons and prevent breakage,” he added.

Ursolic acid is the key

In the course of their investigation, they identified a molecule named ursolic acid, prevalent in apples and herbs, that curtails axon fragility. This occurs through the triggering of a gene that produces a specific type of fat.

According to Professor Pocock, “This particular fat also prevented axon fragility as animals age by improving axon transport and therefore its overall health.”

The fat, identified as a sphingolipid, travels from the mother’s intestine, where food is broken down, to the eggs within the uterus. This journey is crucial for the sphingolipid to safeguard the axons in the next generation.

While these findings are cause for optimism, Professor Pocock cautioned that they still need confirmation through studying human mother’s diets.

“This is the first time that a lipid/fat has been shown to be inherited,” he stated. “Moreover, feeding the mother the sphingolipid protects the axons of two subsequent generations. This implies that a mother’s diet can influence not just their offspring’s brain but potentially subsequent generations.”

He concluded, “Our work supports a healthy diet during pregnancy for optimal brain development and health.”

For the full details of the study, see the published paper in Nature Cell Biology, titled “An Intestinal Sphingolipid Confers Intergenerational Neuroprotection.”

More about prenatal nutrition

Prenatal nutrition refers to the dietary and nutrient intake of pregnant women that supports both their health and the health, growth, and development of their unborn child. It is an essential aspect of pregnancy, playing a pivotal role in fetal development.

In addition to meeting the nutritional needs of the expectant mother, it also influences the long-term health of the child. Mind-boggling as it may seem, a poor diet can also have multi-generational effects.

Importance of a mother’s diet

Proper prenatal nutrition helps foster a healthy pregnancy by reducing the risk of complications. These may include preterm birth, low birth weight, and congenital anomalies.

Additionally, a mother’s diet influences the child’s future health by affecting factors such as their risk of developing chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Moreover, it provides essential nutrients required for the formation and growth of new cells, the development of organs, and the preparation of physiological systems for life after birth.

Nutrients required in mother’s diet

Energy and macronutrients

During pregnancy, the demand for energy and certain nutrients increases. To support fetal growth and maternal health, expectant mothers need to consume an extra 300-500 calories per day, typically.

To aid in the growth of fetal tissues, including the brain, and to increase their blood volume, expectant mothers should also increase their protein intake.

Carbohydrates, particularly complex ones, are the main source of energy for both the mother and fetus. They play a key role in fetal brain development.

Fat intake, especially essential fatty acids like DHA, is crucial for fetal brain development and the formation of the placenta.

Vitamins and minerals

Certain vitamins and minerals become especially important during pregnancy.

Folate, a B vitamin, can prevent neural tube defects and is essential for DNA replication and cell division.

Iron requirements increase significantly to support the expanding maternal blood volume and fetal iron stores. Iron deficiency can lead to maternal anemia and low birth weight.

Calcium is crucial for fetal bone development. If the mother’s dietary intake is inadequate, her body draws calcium from her bones. This could potentially impact her bone health.

Vitamin D helps promote calcium absorption and bone health in both mother and baby.

Recommended dietary practices

A mother’s diet should be a balanced diet. Eating foods rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats, can help meet most of these nutritional needs. However, certain nutrients, such as iron, folate, and iodine, may be difficult to obtain solely through diet, making supplementation advisable.

Expectant mothers should limit intake of processed foods high in sugar and salt. They should also avoid alcohol, excessive caffeine, and foods associated with higher risk of foodborne illness, such as raw or undercooked seafood, eggs, and meat.

Challenges and considerations

People widely recognize the importance of prenatal nutrition, but they face challenges in meeting these nutritional needs. These can include nausea, food aversions, or cravings associated with pregnancy, as well as socioeconomic factors such as food insecurity. People also need to make special considerations for vegetarian or vegan diets, gestational diabetes, and multiple pregnancies.

Prenatal care should involve tailored dietary advice and monitoring of nutritional status. With the right support, both mother and child can benefit from optimized prenatal nutrition.

Prenatal nutrition is a vital aspect of a healthy pregnancy. It provides the necessary nutrients for the mother’s health and the proper development of the fetus, setting the foundation for the child’s long-term health.

Meeting the specific nutritional requirements of pregnancy and overcoming related challenges is key to ensuring the best outcomes for both mother and child.

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