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Is maternal vitamin D deficiency linked to altered childhood metabolism?

Posted on: October 27, 2017   by  Missy Sturges & John Canell, MD


A new study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests maternal vitamin D status is associated with metabolic changes in the offspring.

The term ‘metabolism’ is frequently discussed as an important component of fitness and health. However, human metabolism extends far beyond the efficiency at which one burns calories. In fact, metabolism refers to all chemical processes carried out within the body.

The state of an individual’s overall health is largely dictated by their metabolic profile, which is believed to be strongly influenced by prenatal programming. The prenatal programming theory states that the  in utero environment can alter the development of a fetus, potentially impacting the health of offspring throughout their life.

Factors that may impact fetal programming include maternal stress and altered nutrition. Due to the extremely high prevalence of maternal vitamin D deficiency, accompanied with the increased prevalence of chronic health conditions, researchers theorize vitamin D may be an additional factor influencing fetal programming.

Despite the abundance of research that has evaluated the role of serum 25(OH)D status in a variety of health outcomes, no research to date has assessed the effect of maternal vitamin D exposure on their offspring’s metabolic profile. Researchers believe metabolomics, or study of metabolic profiles, may improve understanding on the complexity of disease susceptibility.

Therefore, in a new study, researchers assessed whether vitamin D status plays a role in prenatal programming. They explored   the plasma metabolic profiles from a subset of 3 year old children with and without asthma from the study, Vitamin D Antenatal Asthma Reduction Trial (VAAART).

In the VAAART, pregnant women were randomly assigned to receive 4,400 IU vitamin D3 or 400 IU vitamin D3 daily. Supplementation began between weeks 10 and 18 of pregnancy, and did not cease until delivery of their infant. The women’s vitamin D status was measured at baseline and during their third trimester. Their children’s vitamin D levels were measured at 3 years of age.

A total of 245 children with and without asthma were included in this subset analysis. The blood draw the children received at 3 years was utilized for metabolomic profiling. The researchers clustered the children based off similarities in their metabolic profiles. The researchers did not identify the children based on their or their mother’s vitamin D status when the metabolic clustering took place.

The children exhibited 3 different clusters:

  • Cluster 1: High concentration of fatty acids and amines, and low maternal vitamin D status after supplementation (11 ng/ml; 27.5 nmol/l). Elevated levels of fatty acids and amines are considered pro-inflammatory.
  • Cluster 2: Moderate concentration of fatty acids, high concentration of amines and normal maternal vitamin D status after supplementation (34 ng/ml; 85 nmol/l).
  • Cluster 3: Low concentration of fatty acids, low concentration of amines and normal maternal vitamin D status post supplementation (35.2 ng/ml; 88 nmol/l).

The researchers assessed whether vitamin D exposure in utero impacted the formation of these clusters. Lastly, the researchers identified the dominant metabolic pathways influenced by each cluster to assess whether vitamin D status impacted the child’s metabolic profile.

Here is what the researchers found:

  • Of the 245 children included in the analysis, 34% developed asthma.
  • A total of 19% of children were categorized into cluster 1, 38% were in cluster 2 and 43% were in cluster 3.
  • The 3 clusters had significantly different concentrations of 18 metabolites (p = 0.001).
  • Baseline maternal vitamin D status did not impact metabolic profile classification (i.e. cluster membership). However, combining maternal vitamin D status from both before and after supplementation significantly altered the child’s metabolic profile (p = 0.03).
  • After adjusting for confounding variables, the children’s vitamin D status at 3 years did not impact the relationship between maternal vitamin D status after supplementation and cluster membership (p = 0.0014).

The researchers concluded,

“Young children can be clustered into distinct biologically meaningful groups by their metabolomics profiles. The clusters differed in concentrations of inflammatory mediators, and cluster membership was influenced by in utero vitamin D exposure, suggesting a prenatal programming role of vitamin D on the child’s metabolome.”

This study showcases just how crucial maternal vitamin D supplementation is to promote optimal health of the offspring. It’s important to note that 4,000 IU vitamin D3 did not enable the women from this study to reach vitamin D sufficiency (40 – 60 ng/ml; 100 – 150 nmol/l), according the Vitamin D Council’s and the Endocrine Society’s standards.

We don’t know how the results would have impacted if the children had been supplemented during the first 3 years of life or if the women would have been supplementing during the first 3 prenatal months. Again, it is crucial that women of childbearing years have 25(OH)D above 40 ng/ml.

The Vitamin D Council recommends women who are either pregnant or who are considering becoming pregnant supplement with at least 5,000 IU (125 mcg) vitamin D3 to ensure both the needs of the mother and infant are being met. Of course, the only way to know if you are maintaining a healthy level is to have your vitamin D status tested.


Sturges, M. & Cannell, JJ. Maternal vitamin D deficiency linked with altered childhood metabolism.  The Vitamin D Council Blog & Newsletter, September, 2017.


Blighe, K. et al. Vitamin D prenatal programming of childhood metabolomics profiles at age 3 y. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017.

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