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A common micronutrient may help offset damage from marijuana use during pregnancy. Getty Images
  • A new study finds that consuming a common micronutrient may help offset damage from cannabis use during pregnancy, but more research is needed.
  • A small but growing percentage of women have used cannabis while pregnant.
  • Experts worry the drug can negatively affect fetal development.

The number of pregnant women using marijuana has grown slightly in recent years, despite many warnings about the harms marijuana use can inflict on growing babies.

Past research has found the percent of women using cannabis while pregnant increased from about just under 2 to over 3 percent.

Some women use the drug to treat morning sickness, depression, stress, and anxiety throughout their pregnancies, while others use it before they even know they’re pregnant.

New research from the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, Colorado, suggests that maternal marijuana use can damage the fetal brain earlier than experts previously thought and put the child at risk for serious developmental impairments.

The researchers may have also unveiled a potential way to mitigate the damage linked to maternal marijuana use.

The common micronutrient choline, found in foods like poultry, eggs, and broccoli, may protect the fetus’s brain from some harm when the mother uses marijuana, according to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

“In this study, we found that maternal marijuana use begins to negatively impact the fetal brain at an earlier stage in pregnancy than we expected. However, we also found that eating choline-rich foods or taking choline as a supplement may protect the child from potential harm,” Dr. Camille Hoffman, an associate professor of maternal fetal medicine with the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in a statement.

To better understand marijuana’s effect on the fetal brain, the researchers studied 201 pregnant women along with their newborns.

The mothers were interviewed at 16 weeks gestation to determine if they used marijuana at the time of conception or in the first few weeks of their pregnancy.

The researchers also conducted various tests, including a urine toxicology, to measure their drug use and track gestational milestones.

The interview sessions were then repeated every six weeks.

Of the participants, 60 percent did not use marijuana.

About 16 percent only used marijuana at conception, 8 percent used it the first few weeks after conception but stopped by 10 weeks gestation, and 15 percent continued to use it until term.

The researchers also evaluated the newborns one month after birth and three months after birth.

They found that one-month-old infants who’d been exposed to marijuana after 10 weeks gestation had decreased central nervous system inhibition. At three months, the infants had lower self-regulation scores.

Interestingly, these deficits were not as present in the infants whose mothers had higher gestational choline levels in the second trimester.

In addition, the infants of mothers with higher choline levels had higher attention spans and were more attached and cuddly with their parents.

The longer a mother uses marijuana throughout her pregnancy, the more serious self-regulation issues — such as attention and social function problems — the child may encounter later in life.

“Our DNA programs us to follow a development plan,” said Dr. Jared Heathman, a psychiatrist in Houston, Texas. “If a substance delays a part of the plan, the rest of the body [or] brain may not wait.”

Irregularities in brain development have been shown to contribute to self-regulation issues, such as agitation, distractibility, impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity, he said.

Other children who were exposed to marijuana in utero may go on to experience visual problem solving and motor coordination issues.

Furthermore, children who experience any of these challenges may be more prone to depression, psychosis, and substance abuse.

Choline is an essential nutrient that supports the normal, healthy development of the growing fetal brain, according to health experts.

“Choline is a necessary ingredient for the nervous system to develop and work correctly with roles in DNA synthesis, cell structure, and messaging. Deficiencies can lead to many developmental issues, and it’s hypothesized that marijuana can contribute to this deficiency,” Heathman said.

Choline also appears to help offset the risks of maternal marijuana use.

“Maternal choline transported into the amniotic fluid activates specific receptors in the fetal brain that are otherwise negatively impacted by marijuana,” Dr. Meagan Haynes, an OB-GYN at Yale Medicine, said.

Choline is likely able to somewhat protect the brain against the effects of marijuana and, therefore, help promote normal brain development.

Up to 95 percent of pregnant women consume less choline than the recommended intake levels, which is 450 milligrams per day, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

To support the development of your baby, regardless of whether or not you use marijuana, it’s crucial to eat choline-rich foods — such as egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, and nuts.

You can also take choline supplements, but most prenatal vitamins contain only a small amount of choline.

“It’s quite clear from the scientific data that choline should be a required supplemental nutrient during all pregnancies, and more particularly in the pregnancies of women using marijuana regularly,” Dr. Felice Gersh, an OB-GYN and founder of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, California, told Healthline.

Some women continue to use marijuana while they’re pregnant because they believe it’s safer and more effective than certain pharmaceutical drugs. But experts warn the drug is not safe to use during pregnancy.

Given the risks, however, health experts recommend that women who are pregnant — or are even contemplating becoming pregnant — should stop using the drug immediately.

As the findings show, by stopping marijuana use before 10 weeks gestation, mothers can prevent any damage that marijuana may cause and ensure their babies’ brains and bodies develop properly.

“Some women self-medicate with marijuana to improve nausea, insomnia, and anxiety disorders, and given the changing legal status, its use among pregnant women has been increasing,” Haynes said. “While it may help with these symptoms, there are safer alternatives to be used in pregnancy with better quality evidence and less potential for harm.”

New research from the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that maternal marijuana use can damage the fetal brain much earlier than experts previously thought, ultimately causing self-regulation and central nervous system issues in newborns.

The researchers also found that choline, an essential nutrient, may protect the baby’s brain from marijuana and promote healthy fetal development.