A new study by Monash University has found that mothers who eat apples and herbs in early pregnancy could be protecting the brain health of their children and grandchildren.
Published in Nature Cell Biology, the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute study found that certain foods could help protect against the deterioration of brain function.
The study used roundworms (caenorhabditis elegans) as the genetic model because many of their genes are also found conserved in humans, enabling insights into human cells.
Researchers found that a molecule present in apples and herbs (basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage) helped reduce the breakdown of communication cables needed for the brain to work properly.
Senior author Professor Roger Pocock and his team were investigating nerve cells in the brain that connect and communicate with each other through about 850,000 kilometres of cables called axons. For axons to function and survive, essential materials need to be transported along an internal structure that contains microtubules.
Professor Pocock said a malfunction that caused the axons to become fragile led to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration.
"We identified a molecule found in apples and herbs (ursolic acid) that reduces axon fragility. [The acid] causes a gene to turn on that makes a specific type of fat. This particular fat also prevented axon fragility as animals age by improving axon transport and therefore its overall health," Professor Pocock said.
This type of fat, a sphingolipid, had to travel from the mother's intestine, where food is digested, to eggs in the uterus for it to protect axons in the next generation. He said while the results were promising, they still need to be confirmed in humans.
"This is the first time that a lipid/fat has been shown to be inherited," he said. "Further, feeding the mother the sphingolipid protects the axons of two subsequent generations. This means a mother's diet can affect not just their offspring's brain but potentially subsequent generations. Our work supports a healthy diet during pregnancy for optimal brain development and health."
Kareela mother of two Sarah D'Arcy, 34, knows all too well the importance of good nutrition during pregnancy, but found it difficult to maintain because of her morning sickness. Choosing to live a gluten free lifestyle shifted when she got pregnant, simply because of her food aversions.
"I had the guilts because I was growing a baby but all I felt like eating was hot chips," she said. "I knew I had to have nutrients but I also had to survive so I did what helped me. I did crave fruit so that's interesting about the study on apples."
The 2023 Pregnancy Nutrition Survey by Elevit also states that almost half of women surveyed actively trying to conceive did not understand what to eat to access the nutrients they need for a healthy pregnancy, and about a third were more conscious of what to avoid eating, such as softs cheese or cured meats.
Mrs D'Arcy said she made sure taking multi-vitamins was a regular part of her pregnancy journey.
"I started taking them while trying for a baby. But it's also hard to keep up with all the information overload," she said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.