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Motherhood is Amazing

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By Meghan Sloan, MA

Having recently had a baby, I am particularly interested in how our sense of taste changes during pregnancy.  Perhaps you have heard stories of pregnant women craving unusual combinations of food such as pickles and ice cream.  My own mom stopped dead in the grocery store with the intense desire for canned beets while pregnant with me.   An informal polling of previously or currently pregnant volunteers and staff at the museum illustrate a few common cravings, with ice cream being at the top of the list but also including fruits, vegetables, pickles, peanut butter cups and French fries.  People say that a mother's body craves what the baby needs, which was certainly my excuse for eating dozens of doughnuts!

But does a mother's ability to taste actually change?  To be extra safe, I did not test my bitter taster status while pregnant.  However, it has been reported that some pregnant women actually show an increased sensitivity to bitter compounds in early pregnancy, but their preference for bitter increased in the second and third trimesters (Duffy et al., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1998).  Perhaps this is to increase the mother's ability to detect potentially poisonous plants and further protect the fetus in early development and to diversify the diet in the later stages of pregnancy.  Bitter is not the only taste affected by pregnancy.  According to Campbell-Brown and Hytten (Clinical Physiology in Obstetrics, 1998) there is a decrease in salt threshold (or an increased preference for salt) in pregnant women as well.  This makes sense, since pregnant women do, in fact, have an increased physiological demand for salt. 

The mechanism for changes in food intake, metabolism and taste during pregnancy is not well understood.  Early studies indicate that hormones may be responsible for some of these changes.  It has been shown that estrogen decreases food intake while progesterone increases food intake (Asarian and Geary, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biology, 2006).  In other words, we might have hormones to thank for the stereotypical mom "eating for two."   Additionally, when estrogen levels are high, women have increased sensitivity to sucrose (Than et al., Physiology and Behaviour, 1994).  Hormones are my new excuse for eating doughnuts! 

Another mechanism for change might be in the tongue itself, at least in rats.  Fascinatingly, a rat's taste buds actually go through morphological changes during pregnancy (Yucel et al., Annals of Anatomy, 2002).

These changes in taste and diet are just another example of how our bodies are amazing, particularly a mother's.  The chemicals in her body change to influence the food she chooses to eat in order to enhance the development of her baby.  Thanks moms.  Happy Mother's Day.

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