Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy May 1, 2010

At no other time of a woman’s life is she more concerned about good nutrition than during pregnancy. As a practicing obstetrician, one of the commonest questions I am asked is what should a pregnant woman eat to make sure her baby gets off to the best start in life. Scientific research continues to expand our knowledge of nutrition in pregnancy, and perhaps the most important recent development in this field is the role played by omega-3 fatty acids in the development of a healthy baby.

Omega-3 fatty acids are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are indispensable for human growth and development, yet are not synthesized by humans. These must be obtained from the diet, specifically from either fish or flaxseed oil. However, a “normal” adult diet is severely deficient in these critical nutrients.1 This imbalance is primarily the result of an American diet, which consumes less fish, grass-fed meat, and free-ranging poultry than was consumed decades earlier. This deficiency in omega-3 intake is compounded by the fact that after a woman’s first pregnancy, her maternal stores become depleted, rarely returning to pre-pregnancy levels. Subsequent pregnancies continue this depletion.

This lack of an essential nutrient is important, as Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be a critical component for both neurological and early visual development of the baby. With approximately 60% of the brain composed of lipids, these types of compounds make up almost 20% of the total brain fatty acids. Recently published research has confirmed that adding these nutrients to the diet of pregnant women can definitely have a positive effect on visual and cognitive function of the child, with effects measurable up to the age of four.

Omega-3 fatty acids may also have positive effects on the pregnancy itself. One of the most feared medical complications of pregnancy is pre-eclampsia, also known as toxemia. Pre-eclampsia, which complicates approximately 5-10% of all pregnancies, is a leading contributor to maternal mortality, preterm delivery, fetal growth retardation, and perinatal mortality. Women with lower storehouses of omega-3 fatty acids have much more risk of developing pre-eclampsia. Whether supplementation can decrease the risk of pre-eclampsia is currently under study.

An even more important benefit is the role of omega-3 fatty acids in preventing pre-term labor and delivery. Women with lower amounts of omega-3 fatty acids have a higher risk of preterm labor, and supplementation with this vital nutrient has been shown to decrease the risk of this often catastrophic pregnancy complication. Omega-3 fatty acids may also lower the risk of post-partum depression, as well as the well-known benefits for preventing heart disease.

Fortunately, there are now easy ways to supplement a pregnant woman’s diet with this essential nutrient. One might think that eating more fish would be a simple, natural way to get more omega-3. However, due to increased mercury pollution caused by coal burning power plants, the levels of mercury in fish are getting dangerously high. The FDA has issued advisories that limit the amount of fish that is safe for a pregnant woman to consume. Specifically, large “predator” type fish such as swordfish, (fresh) tuna, shark, and mackerel are not considered safe for pregnant women. Canned “light” tuna is OK in moderation. Mercury is a potent neural toxin, and may be responsible for cognitive delays and other types of brain damage. Developing babies are the most vulnerable to this type of toxin.

A safer option may be vitamin supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to the fish oil capsules sold in health food stores, at least two brands of pre-natal vitamins contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in some types of infant formula. For breast-feeding mothers, supplementation would be recommended so the nutrients can pass to the baby in the breast milk.

Research into the role of this important nutrient is continuing, and all of the benefits may not be known for years, especially given the long time required to study the effects of brain development. However, the data so far seems to be encouraging, indicating a benefit for both mother and baby at this critical time of life. Pregnant moms have always wanted to give their babies every advantage in life, and one way to contribute is with good nutrition during pregnancy. Omega-3 fatty acids can be an important, maybe even a critical, addition to a pregnant woman’s diet.

Editorial provided by Steve Hasley, MD. Dr. Hasley is a practicing obstetrician at West Penn Hospital.

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