Eating nuts may boost fetal brain development

A new study finds such kids excel in all cognitive areas.

  • A Spanish study finds that nuts consumed early in pregnancy boost babies' cognitive strength.
  • Eating walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pine nuts and/or hazelnuts early in pregnancy can make a big difference.
  • For those without allergies, nuts are good food.

While the medical community — and parents — continue to deal with the 1 in 5 kids who suffer from a peanut allergy, there's some news about a very different, and beneficial, role such nuts can play in the diet of expecting mothers. A study from Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and published in the European Journal of Epidemiology has found that eating nuts during the first trimester of pregnancy can boost a baby's intelligence.

Munching for braininess

Image source: Felipe Salgado / Unsplash

The Spanish study included over 2,200 mother/child pairs enrolled in proyecto INMA. Questionnaires tracked the nut intake of these mothers from Asturias, Guipuzcoa, Sabadell and Valencia during their first and third trimesters. Walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pine nuts and hazelnuts were the specific nuts ingested.

The Spanish Society of Community Nutrition recommends an average weekly nut consumption of between three and seven 30g servings a week. (Thirty grams is about 36 cocktail peanuts.) The women in the study had less than that amount, with a weekly average of just under three servings. Given the study's finding, says ISGlobal researcher and first author Florence Gignac, "This makes us think that if the mothers consumed the recommended weekly average the benefits could be much greater."

The children in the study were given questionnaires at ages of 1.5, 5 and 8 years of age to assess their cognitive abilities. The kids whose mothers had eaten nuts in their first trimester got high scores in all three tested areas: cognitive function, attention capacity, and working memory. No similar effect was found for children of final trimester nut consumption.

Early impact

Image source: Mike Fox / Unsplash

The results suggest that nuts make their positive contribution to cognitive development primarily during the mothers' early weeks of pregnancy. Second study author Jordi Júlvez Calvo says, "While our study does not explain the causes of the difference between the first and third trimesters, the scientific literature speculates that the rhythm of fetal development varies throughout the pregnancy and that there are periods when development is particularly sensitive to maternal diet."

Timing aside, the finding is further evidence of a mother's nutrition as an important factor in fetal development, with long-term benefits. "We think," says Gignac, "that the beneficial effects observed might be due to the fact that the nuts provided high levels of folic acid and, in particular, essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6. These components tend to accumulate in neural tissue, particularly in the frontal areas of the brain, which influence memory and executive functions."

Júlvez warns that, of course, this is just one study, and expectant mothers should exercise caution when devising their diet during pregnancy based on its finding. "In any case," he says, "as this is the first study to explore this effect, we must treat the findings with caution and work on reproducing them in the future with more cohort studies as well as randomized controlled trials."

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.