Food and Behaviour Research

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Can certain nutrients protect against the effects of fetal alcohol exposure?

by Wiley


Supplementing the mother's diet with certain nutrients could be an effective preventative measure to protect embryos from accidental early foetal alcohol exposure.


Most women are aware that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the development of their unborn child, so most mothers-to-be try to minimise if not completely avoid drinking alcohol, once they know they are pregnant.

However, exposure to alcohol both before, and early in pregancy - i.e. before most mothers-to-be even know they are pregnant - can also harm brain development in the unborn child.

Damaging effects of maternal alcohol consumption on foetal development even occur at conception - and importantly, their severity also reflects the prenatal nutritional status of the mother. 

Similar effects of paternal alcohol consumption on brain development have also been reported in animal studies - indicating that public health messaging targeting women alone may not be sufficient to reduce the burden of foetal alcohol spectum disorders (FASD).

What is NOT widely enough known is that a lack of dietary choline - a nutrient essential for normal brain development and function - and one that can help to mitigate the harmful effects of alcohol - contributes to the damage that alcohol causes to early brain development. 

As a 'methyl donor', choline works together with betaine, folate (vitamin B9, or folic acid) and Vitamin B12 to influence gene expression and regulation - with all these nutrients playing a key role in the 'nutritional programming' of development in early life.

In this new animal study, researchers showed that supplementing the diet of mothers before pregnancy with a balanced supply of these key nutrients was successful in reducing the damaging effects on foetal brain development of prenatal alcohol consumption.

These findings could have very important implications for public health policy - as

1) Dietary deficiencies of these nutrients are very common in women of childbearing age who consume modern. western-type diets (and in the case of choline, almost universal). See:

2) There is also good evidence that Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders make a significant contribution to a wide range of milder forms of neurodevelopmental disorder, as well as to the more severe forms of behaviour and learning disabilities found in children with classic physical signs of FASD.  See:

For details of this new research, showing that a diet enriched in just 4 key nutrients - folic acid, choline, betaine, and vitamin B12 - can reduce the detrimental effects of prenatal alcohol on brain development, see:

For further information please see:

See also:

06/03/2023 - Medical Xpress

Fetal alcohol exposure at any stage of pregnancy can lead to congenital malformations, as well as cognitive, behavioral, and emotional impairments in offspring. New research conducted in mice and published in The FASEB Journal indicates that even very early embryos exposed to alcohol can experience growth restriction, brain abnormalities, and skeletal delays, but feeding pregnant mothers certain nutrients prior to conception and throughout pregnancy can reduce the incidence and severity of the alcohol-induced defects.
The beneficial effects were seen with a combination of four nutrients—folic acid, choline, betaine, and vitamin B12.
The authors stress that the best way to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders remains to abstain from alcohol use during pregnancy.

However, the results of their study suggest that supplementing the mother's diet with certain nutrients before and during pregnancy could be an effective preventative measure to protect embryos from accidental early fetal alcohol exposure, especially in cases where the mother has nutritional deficiencies.
"These results will lead to future mechanistic studies investigating the underlying biological mechanisms by which certain nutrients protect early embryos from alcohol-induced defects that could deepen our understanding of fetal development pathways and lead to novel interventions for the prevention or treatment of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders," said corresponding author Serge McGraw, Ph.D., of the University of Montréal.