Cheese may often be seen as an indulgence but, according to the latest research, it could have beneficial effects for the children of mothers who consume adequate levels during pregnancy. Find out more about this study and how B vitamins could support brain health and the nervous system in this week’s Nutrition News here.

Cheese consumption during pregnancy linked to foetal neurodevelopment

Fermented foods are known to regulate intestinal microbiota and support health in a range of ways. While diet influences intestinal microbiota, foetal microbiota development begins in utero and is inherited from the mother. This implies that maternal intake of fermented foods could positively impact foetal development by enhancing the intestinal environment. Fermented foods also provide essential nutrients beneficial for children’s health and development.

The Japan Environment and Children's Study (JECS) is a nationwide birth cohort study examining environmental impacts on child health and development. A study which looked to assess this link, reported in the article “Eating cheese during pregnancy linked to better neurodevelopmental outcomes in children” used data from JECS, where 60,910 mother-infant pairs were analysed.

Maternal dietary intake of fermented foods (miso, natto, yogurt, and cheese) during pregnancy was assessed using a self-administered Food Frequency Questionnaire. Written informed consent was obtained from all participants. The primary outcome, the neurodevelopmental status of the offspring at 3 years of age, was measured using the Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ-3), evaluating development in communication, problem-solving, gross motor, fine motor, and social skills.

Participants' responses were scored, with adjustments for partially completed questionnaires. The data was analysed using multivariate logistic regression to estimate the risk of neurodevelopmental delay based on maternal intake of fermented foods, divided into quartiles. Confounders such as maternal age, BMI, parity, smoking status, passive smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity, folate intake, energy intake, marital status, education level, partner's education level, employment status, household income, and antibiotic use were considered. Potential mediators were excluded as covariates.

The study categorised intake levels of four fermented foods into quartiles: miso (0–24 g, 25–74 g, 75–145 g, and 147–2,063 g), natto (0–1.7 g, 3.3–5.4 g, 10.7–12.5 g, and 16.1–600.0 g), yogurt (0–8 g, 12–26 g, 30–90 g, and 94–1,440 g), and cheese (0–0.7 g, 1.3–2.0 g, 2.1–4.3 g, and 5.0–240.0 g).

Mothers who consumed higher amounts of yogurt during pregnancy generally had higher education levels, higher annual income, and a higher percentage of nulliparas. Their partners also tended to have higher education levels, and there was a lower percentage of smokers or passive smokers among them. Across all four fermented foods, higher intake groups exhibited greater energy and folate intake compared to the lowest intake group.

Multivariable logistic regression analysis showed that cheese intake during pregnancy significantly reduced the risk of neurodevelopmental delay in offspring across all five domains at 3 years of age. Mothers in the highest quartile of cheese intake had offspring with notably lower risks of delays in communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem-solving, and social skills compared to those in the lowest quartile. Similarly, higher yoghurt intakes were associated with reduced risks of developmental delays, especially in communication skills, among mothers in the top quartile of consumption.

While higher intake levels of miso and natto also showed some beneficial effects, these were less pronounced compared to yogurt and cheese. For instance, mothers in the highest quartile of miso consumption had offspring with a modest reduction in the risk of communication skill delays. Conversely, natto intake did not significantly correlate with reduced developmental delays across the assessed domains.

In summary, when mothers consumed ≥1.3 g of cheese daily during pregnancy, their offspring had a significantly reduced risk of motor and neurodevelopmental delays at age 3. Fermented foods enhance nutritional value through microbial fermentation, supporting health and influencing neurodevelopment via gut-brain interactions. This study extends prior findings, highlighting cheese's unique benefits. Cheese contains essential nutrients including protein, zinc, and tryptophan, which support neurodevelopment. Supported maternal gut health from fermented food intake could benefit foetal development, emphasising the importance of maternal diet during pregnancy.

Flavonoid teamed with vitamin B6 thought to support brain health

Insufficient vitamin B6 is linked to cognitive impairment, and a new study reveals a novel approach to maintaining adequate B6 levels. Research, reported in the article “Combining flavonoid with vitamin B6 may help preserve cognitive function” indicates that the naturally occurring flavonoid 7,8-dihydroxyflavone can bind to and inhibit a B6-degrading enzyme called pyridoxal phosphatase (PDXP), thus preserving B6 levels in the brain.

Led by Antje Gohla, PhD, from the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Würzburg, the study builds on previous work that showed improved spatial learning and memory in subjects with deactivated PDXP.

Neuropsychologist Jacqueline Becker, PhD, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explained that maintaining adequate levels of B vitamins, particularly B6, is crucial for optimal neurotransmitter synthesis and homocysteine metabolism, which are essential for cognitive function. B6 deficiency is especially linked to cognitive impairment in areas associated with hippocampal functioning, a region vital for memory consolidation and learning.

Becker emphasised that B6 aids in synthesising neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and reduces blood homocysteine levels. Additionally, B6 impacts mood, a significant factor in cognitive health, with cognitive dysfunction being a key symptom of depression.

Gohla's team found that PDXP is upregulated in the hippocampus of middle-aged subjects, suggesting that supplemented B6 is quickly degraded by hyperactive PDXP. Therefore, combining B6 supplements with PDXP inhibitors such as 7,8-dihydroxyflavone may be more effective in boosting cellular B6 levels.

Gohla anticipates that 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, along with supplemented B6, will increase cellular B6 levels, potentially enhancing cognition. However, further studies are needed to determine B6's role in neurodegenerative diseases, its bioavailability, and appropriate dosages. Becker suggests that combining B6 management with a diet rich in other B vitamins and micronutrients will best support cognitive and mental health.

B vitamin deficiency linked to nervous system health

Parkinson’s disease is the fastest-growing neurodegenerative disorder globally, with the World Health Organization estimating over 8.5 million people living with the disorder in 2019. Since 1990, the number of people with Parkinson’s has more than doubled worldwide.

The risk of developing Parkinson’s increases with age, and men are 50% more likely to develop it than women. Other risk factors include genetics, exposure to environmental toxins, and past traumatic brain injury. Symptoms occur when nerve cells in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that controls movement, are damaged and die, ceasing the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This leads to tremors, muscle stiffness, slow movement, impaired balance and coordination, emotional changes, and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Studies have suggested that an imbalance in gut microbiota may contribute to the development of Parkinson’s disease. A recent study, discussed in the article “Study suggests 2 vitamin B deficiencies may play a role in Parkinson's disease,” in five countries analysed the microbiota of people with and without Parkinson’s, revealing that those with the disease have a marked reduction in bacterial genes that produce riboflavin (vitamin B2) and biotin (vitamin B7).

Michael S. Okun, M.D., executive director of the Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases, highlighted that the faecal biosyntheses of riboflavin and biotin were both found to be decreased in people with Parkinson’s disease, noting potential regional and dietary differences. The study used faecal analysis to investigate the genomes of gut bacteria in 94 people with Parkinson’s disease and 73 controls in Japan, using shotgun sequencing to record bacterial genomes. They found differences in the gut microbiota by country and between those with and without Parkinson’s.

The reduction in bacterial genes for B2 and B7 biosynthesis was strongly linked to decreased faecal short-chain fatty acids and polyamines in Parkinson’s disease. These substances are involved in the production of the mucus layer of the intestine, and their reduction could increase intestinal permeability, allowing toxins to enter the bloodstream and potentially increasing neuroinflammation. While these findings highlight the role of the gut microbiome in Parkinson’s disease, more research is needed before recommending an increase in dietary vitamin B2 and B7 and a healthcare practitioner should always be consulted before making changes to your diet.

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Alison Astill-Smith author Alison is the Founder of Metabolics who writes about Metabolics updates, events and natural healthcare. Her experience and passion for natural supplements and healthcare comes from her years of experience as a practising osteopath, having founded Metabolics in her search for high quality, natural products in her own work. Alison has been a qualified and practising Osteopath since 1981 and regularly gives seminars on a range of healthcare subjects to the wider practitioner community helping share her knowledge and experience.