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Taking vitamin C during pregnancy could protect child's brain health

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Article written by Patsy Westcott

Date published 11 May 2021

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Could taking antioxidants when pregnant protect against memory loss in later life? A tantalizing new study suggests it could.

A healthy diet and lifestyle is vital during pregnancy for the health of the unborn baby, not just in the early years but throughout life. Why? During pregnancy the unborn baby relies on a healthy blood supply to provide oxygen and nutrients needed for growth and development. Increasing research over the past 40 years has shown that the environment of the womb can have lasting effects on health – something doctors call developmental programming.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge set out to discover whether taking vitamin C could help protect the brain against the effects of a shortage of oxygen in the womb and help preserve memory in later life in an animal 'model' of pregnancy.

They discovered that persistent lack of oxygen – chronic fetal hypoxia (CFH) – led to oxidative stress in the placenta as well as stressing the mitochondria, the power plants of our cells. This in turn was linked with a reduced number of brain cells, as well as lower density of blood vessels and connections between brain cells in a brain region called the hippocampus, which is vital to memory and learning.

When the offspring reached adulthood, their ability to form lasting memories was reduced and there was also evidence that their brains aged faster. Adding vitamin C to the animals' food protected against oxidative stress and, importantly, prevented the harmful effects of oxygen shortage on the hippocampus and memory loss in adulthood.

What the study adds

Chronic fetal hypoxia is a common pregnancy complication. It can be due to several factors, including smoking during pregnancy, prolapse or blockage of the baby's lifeline, the umbilical cord, and problems with the blood supply serving the placenta, due for example, to pre-eclampsia.

A host of conditions – including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and insulin resistance (when the body makes but can't use insulin effectively) – have been laid at the door of an unfavourable environment in the womb.

What's been less well understood, until now, is the effects this has on the brain. This study identified a direct link between CFH and poorer memory in adulthood. It also found that supplementing with vitamin C helped protect against this.

The researchers chose vitamin C because of its tried and tested reputation as an antioxidant. However, only high doses were effective and it's not yet known whether these could have harmful side effects in human beings.

What it means for you

The study was done in rats, so it's early days yet. However, it underlines the importance of an antioxidant-rich diet during pregnancy. That means eating a rainbow of foods that provide a wide range of nutrients. Go for wholegrains, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables in a variety of colours, good fats, dairy foods, and lean protein.

"It's hugely exciting to think we might be able to protect the brain health of an unborn child by a simple treatment that can be given to the mother during pregnancy," says lead researcher Professor Dino Giussani, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience.

And she adds: "In medicine today there has to be a shift in focus from treatment of the disease, when we can do comparatively little, to prevention, when we can do much more. This study shows that we can use preventative medicine even before birth to protect long term brain health."

Nutritionist and GP, Dr Sarah Brewer comments: "During pregnancy, your need for certain vitamins and minerals increases. While diet should always come first, I recommend taking a multivitamin designed for pregnancy as a nutritional safety net."

Patsy Westcott portrait

About Patsy Westcott

Patsy Westcott MSc is a freelance writer specialising in health and nutrition, and writes regularly for various print and online publications. She has a Master's degree in Nutritional Medicine and has contributed to more than 40 health and nutrition books.

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