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Can an amino acid ensure a healthy pregnancy?

A new study found that the amino acid L-arginine may help protect pregnant women against preeclampsia.  A serious condition marked by high blood pressure and protein the urine, preeclampsia affects 5 percent to 8 percent of pregnant women, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. If left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to preterm labor, a low birthweight baby or worse. Each year around the world, 76,000 moms and 500,000 infants die due to preeclampsia and other hypertension disorders of pregnancy.

There's some evidence that preeclampsia may be linked to a deficiency in L-arginine, which helps maintain healthy blood flow in the body and is found naturally in meat, fish, poultry, dairy products and nuts. In the new study, published in BMJ Online First, researchers tested the theory on about 700 pregnant women with a previous pregnancy complicated by preeclampsia (95 percent) or a close relative who had the disorder.

From around the 20th week of pregnancy, women in the study ate either food bars containing L-arginine (6.6 g/day, which is slightly higher than the typical daily consumption of L-arginine in the U.S.) and antioxidant vitamins (such as vitamins C and E), bars containing the vitamins alone or bars with neither the amino acid nor the vitamins. All bars had the same packaging.

A lot fewer women who ate the L-arginine-plus-vitamins bars developed preeclampsia (12.7 percent) than those who ate the vitamins-alone bars (22.5 percent) and the no-supplements bars (30.2 percent).

What this means for you: Women often enter natural products stores for the first time during pregnancy because they aim to do better by baby than they have done by themselves. Should you recommend that these women take L-arginine along with their prenatal multi? Of course, you know that supplements can't cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease—according to the FDA, no can do. But might you offer L-arginine as an insurance policy for pregnant women? Before you do, consider this:

In the BMJ study, L-arginine did seem to offer protection against preeclampsia. When taken with antioxidant vitamins. In a food bar. By high-risk women. In Mexico City.

Would taking L-arginine alone prevent preeclampsia?

Would the effect be different if women took L-arginine as a pill rather than in a bar?

Would low-risk pregnant women benefit?

Would women in the United States share the same outcome? An editorial published with the study notes that some research shows that calcium supplements reduce preeclampsia risk in Latin American women, but not in North American women.

If most of the women being studied were having their first child, would the results change? The risk for preeclampsia is greatest during a first-time pregnancy, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ninety-five percent of the women in the BMJ study already had a previous baby.

Bottom line: Preeclampsia is serious, and L-arginine shows promise for helping prevent the condition. However, this study raises more questions than it answers. Advise your pregnant shoppers to consult a health care practitioner before they take L-arginine supplements.

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