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A new study found that a common micronutrient in food — but one not readily available as a nutritional supplement — could protect fetuses from the supposedly damaging effects of cannabis.

Whether pregnant people should consume cannabis remains highly controversial. Still, weed is often used during pregnancies because it can curb nausea caused by morning sickness. 

This one medicinal use for marijuana explains why almost 70 percent of Colorado dispensaries recommended weed to pregnant folks, even though scientists are still figuring out whether toking with a baby on the way is safe. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 2 out of 5 Americans consume cannabis while pregnant.

The study, published Wednesday in Psychological Medicine, came from the University of Colorado School of 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,” Camille Hoffman, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “However, we also found that eating choline-rich foods or taking choline as a supplement may protect the child from potential harm.”

How’d the researchers come to these conclusions? They played sounds for the fetuses, then observed whether the fetus responded by moving. Pregnant subjects who consumed cannabis had fetuses that were less responsive to sound than those who weren’t consuming. 

But expecting moms with diets rich in choline carried babies that responded to sound in a similar fashion as ones who weren’t exposed to weed.

Why this difference in sound responses? Cannabinoids in cannabis affect hormone signaling, and hormones direct how the developing child’s body, brain, and thoughts form. It’s possible that hormones may be going wonky in the fetus after the mother consumed cannabis.

The endocannabinoid system plays a key role in embryonic development, as well, so too many cannabinoids coming from the plant could affect how the body’s natural cannabinoids behave in a developing child. Or maybe the kid is just mildly stoned.

However, our bodies use choline to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter necessary for muscle movement and thinking. It’s also a critical component for healthy pregnancies, since choline doesn’t just enable us to move, it also directs how the body properly forms, just like hormones do.

Choline is an essential nutrient primarily found in eggs, peanuts, and liver. Other sources of choline include pretty much all meats, spinach, pasta, and dairy. Basically, if you’ve got a good, balanced diet composed of fresh foods, you’re getting plenty of choline. 

Although choline is an essential nutrient needed for proper brain and nervous system function, it’s not commonly offered as a nutritional supplement. Probably because, you know, it’s so easily obtained from food.

The researchers looked at diet and cannabis use in pregnant women, since modern medicine suspects that weed could compromise the child’s development later in life. The evidence is contentious, but some studies have concluded that smoking weed while pregnant could cause a kid to develop behavioral and mental health problems. Other studies disagree with this claim, which prompted a group of medical doctors to write a letter to one of the nation’s most prestigious medical journals about overblown fears related to weed and pregnancies.

“[W]e are unconvinced that any investigators, these included, have met the burden of proof or successfully shown cannabis causes harm in pregnancy or is risky for mothers or their fetuses,” wrote Drs. Kevin Takakuwa and Raquel Schears in response to a weed-harms-babies study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “A large meta-analysis study using multiple endpoints did not show any adverse neonatal outcomes.”

“Gold-standard randomized clinical trials are effectively illegal,” continued Takakuwa and Schears. “What data we do have on cannabis does not show definitive harm.”

In other words, it’s difficult for scientists to conclusively say that weed harms fetuses, because no one can ethically or legally conduct a controlled, double-blind study that feeds weed to pregnant folks just to see if their kids come out fucked up. And besides, the science seems to point to weed being relatively harmless on fetuses, rather than the other way around.

But doctors and scientists will usually recommend that people should be cautious — or should even abstain from something altogether — if the data isn’t conclusive regarding whether it’s harmful or helpful. The same goes for cannabis.

What’s the takeaway? We’re not saying that pregnant people should start toting vape pens in their maternity muumuus, but if they’re going to, they should probably ensure that they’re putting a lot more into their bodies besides THC — like eggs and peanuts.

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