Pregnancy is a time when one should try to eat as well as possible, especially for the health of the developing baby. Included in this is the baby's brain development and later intellectual functioning (neurocognitive development). A recent study found that a mother's vitamin D levels during pregnancy are associated with the IQ of the child - that is, higher levels of vitamin D during the second trimester of pregnancy were associated with higher IQs at age 4 to 6 in the child.
Just keep in mind that it's an association - it does not mean that lower vitamin D levels cause lower IQ. Vitamin D levels go hand in hand with other things - for example, vitamin D levels are lower when a person has chronic inflammation or an underlying health condition. Other studies have had mixed results - some had similar findings of effects on intellectual development, but others did not. Black women are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiencies due to their skin melanin content (harder to get enough vitamin D from the sun).
However, these results do add support for trying to correct vitamin D deficiencies and keeping vitamin D levels higher during pregnancy - by taking supplements and getting sunlight. Note that it's very hard to get enough vitamin D through food. The researchers said that prenatal supplements typically contain 400–600 IU vitamin D, but this is probably insufficient to correct vitamin D deficiencies, in which case they recommend daily supplementation of 800 to 1000 IU vitamin D.
From Medical Xpress: Vitamin D levels during pregnancy linked with child IQ
Vitamin D is a critical nutrient and has many important functions in the body. A mother's vitamin D supply is passed to her baby in utero and helps regulate processes including brain development. A study published today in The Journal of Nutrition showed that mothers' vitamin D levels during pregnancy were associated with their children's IQ, suggesting that higher vitamin D levels in pregnancy may lead to greater childhood IQ scores. The study also identified significantly lower levels of vitamin D levels among Black pregnant women.
Melissa Melough, the lead author of the study and research scientist in the Department of Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, says vitamin D deficiency is common among the general population as well as pregnant women, but notes that Black women are at greater risk. Melough says she hopes the study will help health care providers address disparities among women of color and those who are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency.
"Melanin pigment protects the skin against sun damage, but by blocking UV rays, melanin also reduces vitamin D production in the skin. Because of this, we weren't surprised to see high rates of vitamin D deficiency among Black pregnant women in our study. Even though many pregnant women take a prenatal vitamin, this may not correct an existing vitamin D deficiency," Melough said. "
According to Melough, as many as 80% of Black pregnant women in the U.S. may be deficient in vitamin D. Of the women who participated in the study, approximately 46% of the mothers were deficient in vitamin D during their pregnancy, and vitamin D levels were lower among Black women compared to White women.
Melough and her co-authors used data from a cohort in Tennessee called the Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) study. CANDLE researchers recruited pregnant women to join the study starting in 2006 and collected information over time about their children's health and development.
After controlling for several other factors related to IQ, higher vitamin D levels in pregnancy were associated with higher IQ in children ages 4 to 6 years old. Although observational studies like this one cannot prove causation, Melough believes her findings have important implications and warrant further research.
"Vitamin D deficiency is quite prevalent," Melough said. "The good news is there is a relatively easy solution. It can be difficult to get adequate vitamin D through diet, and not everyone can make up for this gap through sun exposure, so a good solution is to take a supplement."
The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 600 international units (IU). On average, Americans consume less than 200 IU in their diet, and so if people aren't making up that gap through sun exposure or supplementation, Melough says people will probably become deficient. Foods that contain higher levels of vitamin D include fatty fish, eggs and fortified sources like cow's milk and breakfast cereals. However, Melough notes that vitamin D is one of the most difficult nutrients to get in adequate amounts from our diets.
Additional research is needed to determine the optimal levels of vitamin D in pregnancy, but Melough hopes this study will help to develop nutritional recommendations for pregnant women. Especially among Black women and those at high risk for vitamin D deficiency, nutritional supplementation and screening may be an impactful strategy for reducing health disparities.
Melough says there are three key takeaways from the study:
- Vitamin D deficiency is common during pregnancy, and Black women are at greater risk because melanin pigment in the skin reduces production of vitamin D
- Higher vitamin D levels among mothers during pregnancy may promote brain development and lead to higher childhood IQ scores
- Screening and nutritional supplementation may correct vitamin D deficiency for those at high risk and promote cognitive function in offspring.