Healthy habits of pregnancy – latest science show maternal habits affect pregnancy success

New studies examine prenatal supplements, obesity, physical activity as well as how eating patterns affect sleep during pregnancy, can all impact pregnancy success.

Four new studies investigating the effects of supplements, eating habits and physical activity and how they can affect various aspects of health during pregnancy are being presented at NUTRITION 2021 LIVE ONLINE.

Image Credit: MIA Studio / Shutterstock
Image Credit: MIA Studio / Shutterstock

Microbiota of breast milk influenced by prenatal supplements

Child growth, immune system development, and overall health is affected by the microbiome contained in breast milk. With the increased usage of prenatal supplements during maternity, microbial diversity and abundance in breast milk may be affected through unforeseen consequences.

New research from Purdue University used data from the CHILD Cohort Study to examine whether diet or supplements taken prenatally affected the microbiota of breast milk in 771 mothers.

Findings revealed that supplements, but not dietary patterns, were linked with changes in human milk microbiota composition.

Mothers who ingested fish oil or folate supplements during pregnancy had lower microbial diversity than those who did not. Moreover, mothers who took vitamin C had higher diversity than those who did not. Researchers say further analysis is required to account for other variables that might influence the human milk microbiome, including behavioral or regional differences, yet preliminary evidence suggests supplements affect the microbiome of breast milk.

Maternal obesity during pregnancy reduces offspring health

Previous studies have found varying effects of maternal obesity on offspring health, and inconsistent results have yielded little conclusive evidence to date. This has been hypothesized to be associated with the direct and indirect effects of additional risk factors contributing to metabolic syndrome.

In a study from researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, data encompassing 22 mothers with obesity with or without other risk factors for metabolic syndrome, including high blood sugar or high cholesterol, were studied. The objective was to examine in further detail whether the additional risk factors contributed to offspring health.

The researchers found that obese women with high blood sugar or high cholesterol had higher glucose levels compared to the women without the risk factors despite similar levels of weight and total fat mass gained during pregnancy.

Importantly, offspring born to mothers with the additional risk factors weighed more and had more fat mass than offspring born to mothers without the additional risk factors.

Such findings indicate that the negative metabolic traits of obesity, including high cholesterol and blood sugar, results in a longer exposure to higher levels of glucose and triglycerides. In turn, this promotes fat mass and weight for the offspring at birth. Ultimately, associations between metabolic traits and offspring health are essential to understand as they could guide more effective prenatal interventions as well as postnatal treatments.

Epigenetic changes in offspring metabolism and cellular activity among the benefits of maternal physical activity during pregnancy

Epigenetic changes such as DNA methylation alter gene expression levels without changing the underlying genetic code. These changes are often a result of behavioral and environmental patterns.

Moreover, previous evidence suggests that maternal physical activity could influence the health of offspring through epigenetic modifications in the placenta. However, several aspects remain to be better understood, including whether the timing of this activity is an influential factor for inheriting such changes.

Research from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) now shows that physical activity during pregnancy was linked with methylation of genes related to multiple pathways from carbohydrate metabolism, cellular function, cardiovascular and neurological system development.

The study was based on data from 296 mothers in the NICHD Fetal GrowthStudies-Singleton cohort. Moreover, analysis of gene expression levels showed no significant associations with physical activity before pregnancy and methylation, but only during pregnancy did methylation levels change.

Further data could support these findings and provide additional insight into the underlying mechanistic changes as to how maternal physical activity affects epigenetic changes.

Timing of food consumption affects sleep quality during pregnancy

The relationship between when we eat and the body's circadian rhythm is well established, with an abundance of evidence demonstrating that the circadian rhythm is based around food consumption and sleep. However, individual variability across demographic, regional, or gender-based factors is less certain.

During pregnancy, sleep is an essential activity to improve maternal recovery and offspring development, and offsetting this balance is key to understand. A new study from UCSI University in Malaysia is looking at how the relationship between sleep and the timing of eating food, referred to as chrononutrition, relates to sleep quality and melatonin rhythm during pregnancy.

Melatonin is a key hormone affecting sleep quality and helps drive the sleep-wake cycle. This study considered how melatonin levels changed depending on meal timing, meal frequency, eating window, breakfast skipping and night eating for 114 women who were pregnant for the first time

Results of the analysis showed that women who ate less frequently or who consumed lower amounts of fat during dinner compared to breakfast and lunch were more likely to have poor sleep quality. In addition, data showed that women eating closer to bedtime was associated with peak melatonin levels that occurred outside of the usual mid-sleep peak.

Such findings are key indications that unfavorable characteristics relating to the timing of food eating could destabilize melatonin rhythm during pregnancy and contribute to poor sleep. Better regulation of chrononutrition can thus improve sleep quality by ensuring a more stable circadian rhythm.

Future research on whether the same effects are observed in subsequent pregnancies or whether different diet compositions or behavioral characteristics such as physical exercise also contribute to stabilizing circadian rhythms would improve our understanding of the importance of chrononutrition.  

James Ducker

Written by

James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  

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