Episode 127

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Just in time for Mother’s Day, the impact of maternal nutrition on infant development…

There’s a close link between maternal health and fetal development — both physical and cognitive — not that anyone is surprised.  Nutritional deficiencies in pregnancy can lead to serious health problems for infants, and have been implicated in increasing children’s chances of developing chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, stroke, and hypertension.

On the cognitive side, deficiencies can lead to low IQ and intellectual disabilities, impacting cognitive function up to 20%.  The development of the fetal brain is rapid — by the first trimester, much of the neurogenesis (creation of brain cells) process of the fetus has already taken shape.  Unfortunately, entering pregnancy with micronutritional deficiencies can have long-lasting consequences for the fetus.

Bouncing Back?

Children can sometimes recover from micronutrient deficiencies, depending on…

  • The severity of the deficiency
  • The number of deficient micronutrients (one is obviously better than many)
  • The micronutrient that is deficient.  For example, even a mild iodine deficiency during gestation results in irreversible damage to cognition and memory.
  • The timing.  Deficiencies during the gestational period carry a greater impact than deficiencies in later childhood, which can often be reversed to a large degree.

Fetal Development in Developing Countries

Dr. Kavitha Menon has spent decades researching maternal health and its impact on fetal growth and development.  In her home country of India, multiple micronutrient deficiencies are common throughout the population, but impact infants the hardest.

In Episode 127, Dr. Menon talks to Jesse about her research into maternal nutrition and fetal development, plus her mission to bring better nutrition to young women of childbearing age, protecting their infants’ brains.  But what she’s learned doesn’t just apply to women in the developing world…

Pop Those Pills

Even comparatively well-nourished women in developed countries can’t overlook micronutrients in the months before and during pregnancy.  While a full list of essential micronutrients during pregnancy is beyond our expertise (there are no babies at Smart Drug Smarts HQ, not counting the kittens), deficiencies in iodine, iron, and selenium are more common than you’d think.

Seriously, if you’re trying to get pregnant, just start taking a prenatal vitamin.  If you’re micronutrient deficient and you only correct it after realizing you’re pregnant, some permanent damage may have been done to your baby’s cognitive function.  The good news is that for most micronutrients, supplementing will take you back to baseline within a month.

Two important micronutrients for cognitive development to watch out for are iron and iodine. Iodine deficiency can easily shave 10 points off a child’s IQ (damage that lasts a lifetime).  Iron is necessary for neurogenesis and myelination (essential for the nervous system to work properly).

The best way to protect your baby’s brain? (None of this is rocket science.)

  • Eat a varied diet, including fortified foods
  • Take prenatal supplements
  • Cook with an iron skillet, which helps to improve iron levels

One More Thing For a Smarter Baby

Maintain a healthy weight.  Carrying excess body weight carries many health risks for both mother and child.  In terms of cognition, one of the biggest risks is intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), which is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, including lower IQ, and memory and learning deficiencies.

Oops!  A Point of Clarification

Any armchair endocrinologists out there?  If so, you may have caught the accidental reversal of the relationship between iodine and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) about two-thirds of the way into the podcast.  Dr. Menon wanted to clarify the point that when a person is deficient in iodine, the levels of TSH actually increase (not decrease).

Episode Highlights

0:22Happy Mother’s day from Smart Drug Smarts
1:20This Week in Neuroscience: Breast milk linked to significant early brain growth
3:53The audience interaction section
5:55Introduction to Dr. Kavitha Menon
7:15Maternal and infant nutrition optimization
9:30Adequate nutrition during pregnancy and its impact on healthy cognitive development
10:40Behavioral programs to encourage nutritional health before gestation
13:46How long does it take to improve a deficiency?
14:40Can babies neurologically bounce back from deficiencies after conception and birth?
15:42The most important thing to focus on: “catch them when they’re young”
17:23Iron and iodine
21:21Three things to watch for when trying to become a mother
22:33Body weight during pregnancy
23:43Dr. Menon’s biggest surprises during her career
27:21The effects of vegetarianism on mental neural development
28:45Nutritional education and habits, and access to quality food
33:17Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: More Kids, Longer Life?

PS:  Just because you’re no longer a fetus doesn’t mean your brain has stopped developing.  Make the most of it with our weekly brain boosting email.

Written by Hannah Sabih
Hannah believes there's nothing 8 hours of sleep and some kale can't cure (yes, she's from California). She's an avid runner, reader, and traveler, who brings you the latest and greatest in neuroscience via our social media channels.
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