Why do pregnant women have cravings?

THE ESSENTIAL

  • Researchers have examined the link between elevated dopamine levels and food cravings in pregnant women
  • These food cravings can lead to eating disorders in the mother and adversely affect the baby’s health.
  • This study could help improve dietary guidelines for pregnant women to ensure good prenatal nutrition and prevent disease development

Cravings for strawberries, chocolate… The cravings of pregnant women are the subject of many myths and popular beliefs. During this time, the mother’s body undergoes a series of physiological and behavioral changes to create a favorable environment for the development of the embryo, and cravings are said to be one of the symptoms. We don’t really know the hormonal mechanisms that cause them yet, but a study published in the journal Nature Metabolism does provides new evidence for the changes in neural activity that cause food cravings.

More sensitive to sugary foods

For their study, researchers from the University of Barcelona examined the behavior of female mice. During pregnancy, your brain experiences changes in the functional connections of the brain’s reward circuitry, taste, and sensorimotor centers. Like pregnant women, female mice are more sensitive to sugary foods and develop compulsive behaviors toward high-calorie foods. “Changing these structures prompted us to explore the mesolimbic pathway, one of the signaling pathways of dopaminergic neurons. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter in motivational behavior” notes March Claret, a member of the Medical Department of the UB and the Center for Networked Biomedical Research in Diabetes and Metabolic Associated Diseases (CIBERDEM).

Increase in dopamine levels

The team observed an increase in dopamine levels – and the activity of its receptor D2R – in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain involved in reward circuitry. “This finding suggests that pregnancy induces a complete reorganization of mesolimbic neuronal circuits by D2R neurons,” notes researcher Roberta Haddad-Tóvolli, who co-leads the study with March Claret. “These neuronal cells – and their modification – would be responsible for the cravings for food, since the fear of food typical during pregnancy disappeared after their activity was blocked.

effect on children

Researchers have also found that persistent cravings have health consequences for future children. They affect metabolism and the development of neural circuits that regulate food intake, leading to weight gain, anxiety and eating disorders. “These results are shocking given that many studies focus on analyzing how the mother’s lifelong habits – such as obesity, malnutrition or chronic stress – affect the baby’s health. However, this study indicates that brief but recurring behaviors such as food cravings are enough to increase offspring’s psychological and metabolic vulnerability.‘ concludes March Claret.

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