The Science Behind… Omega-3 fatty acids

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Research continues to reveal the impact maternal nutrition can have on the life of babies in the first 1000 days of life. As various diseases and conditions rise in incidence each year, so too do the links they share with maternal nutrient status. Despite the awareness of prenatal nutrition, insufficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) still exist and, as emerging research is illustrating, these fish oil components offer additional benefits to what was previously thought. Here, we look at what recent evidence is showing, and answer the question “does my baby need a DHA or EPA supplement?”.

Why DHA & EPA?

Omega-3 supplements for growth & development!

The essential omega-3 fatty acids play a unique role in fetal development and maternal health. Fetal brain development relies on DHA, particularly in the last trimester where it plays a critical role in neurogenesis. During breastfeeding, it is then required for synaptogenesis (brain growth & development).

What are the benefits of EPA & DHA?

Clinical evidence has shown maternal supplementation can improve offspring cognition, mental development, information processing, learning, behaviour, concentration, intellect, attention, problem-solving, motor control and visual acuity [1].

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements for immune health

DHA and EPA are also involved in immune regulation and development, where maternal supplementation has been associated with a reduced risk of allergies, asthma, and respiratory infections [1].

Why is fish oil on everyone’s mind?

There is a concern that the increasing prevalence of developmental learning and behavioural disorders, as well as allergies, might be linked to deficiencies in maternal omega-3 levels.

Is fish oil good or bad during pregnancy?

Omega-3 fatty acids may also support maternal health by reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia during pregnancy – this can be achieved via anti-inflammatory actions and by managing dyslipidemia, decreasing fat stores, and increasing fat burning to reduce central obesity, the risk of hypertension, and high fasting blood glucose levels [2,3].

So, what is the best fish oil dosage during pregnancy?

The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommend women consume 200-300mg/d of DHA during pregnancy and lactation [4], while the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recommends children consume 150mg/d DHA + EPA for essential cognitive development.

So, what are the best sources of DHA & EPA?

Wondering where to get DHA?

Fish and seafood are the only substantial dietary sources of DHA but are not typically consumed regularly (even sparingly for some families). This is further compounded by fear of heavy metal contamination in seafood during pregnancy, resulting in overall poor omega-3 fatty acid consumption during this critical stage.

 

So, does my baby need a DHA or EPA supplement?

The information discussed highlights the importance of maintaining adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids – as such, supplementation will obviously benefit pregnant/breastfeeding women that are deficient in DHA & EPA. Supplements with high DHA levels are particularly beneficial to this group of women, and of great importance to those who do not eat seafood/fish on a regular basis.

References

  1. Koletzko et al. J Perinat Med. 2008; 36(1): p. 5-14.
  2. Kulkarni et al. Clin Nutr. 2011; 30(1): p. 60-4.
  3. Saldeen et al. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2006; 4(2): p. 138-48.
  4. Emmett et al. Nutrients. 2013; 5(4): p. 1098-109.
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