From Dr. Mercola:

By Dr. Mercola

Omega-3 fats are known as essential fatty acids because the only way you can get them is via your diet. In pregnant women, consuming enough omega-3 fats is especially important, as they’re important for the baby’s visual and cognitive development.

In the US, most Americans’ diets are seriously lacking in omega-3 fats. Women tend to become further depleted during pregnancy, as the fetus uses omega-3s for nervous system development. After birth, omega-3s are again used to make breast milk, and for women on their second or third pregnancy, levels may be extremely low.

Generally, with each subsequent pregnancy, women become further depleted in omega-3s.1 New research from the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary in Canada further confirmed that most pregnant women are seriously lacking in these beneficial fats.

Most Pregnant or Breastfeeding Women Aren’t Getting Enough Omega-3s

The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada recommend that pregnant and lactating women (along with all adults) consume at least 500 milligrams (mg) of omega-3s, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), daily.

The European Commission recommends that pregnant and lactating women consume a minimum of 200 mg of DHA, in particular, per day.2 In a study of more than 2,000 women, the majority did not meet these recommendations. In fact, only 27 percent of pregnant women and 25 percent of women at three months postpartum met the EU’s DHA recommendation.3

Overall, 79 percent of the omega-3s in the women’s diets came from seafood, fish, and seaweed products, with the majority from salmon, however this often wasn’t enough to provide therapeutic levels of omega-3s that are critical for infant development.

Health Canada recommends pregnant women consume one to two portions a week of fish high in omega-3 fats to help increase levels. The study also found that women taking an animal-based omega-3 fat supplement were much more likely to meet the recommendations.

Women who took a supplement containing DHA were 10.6 and 11 times more likely to meet the current EU consensus recommendation for pregnancy and postpartum, respectively. The researchers noted, “…taking a supplement significantly improved the likelihood that they would meet recommendations.”

Unfortunately, nearly half (44 percent) of the women who reported taking an omega-3 fat supplement during pregnancy were no longer doing so while breastfeeding at three months postpartum, a period of crucial development for the infant.

The researchers recommended nutritional counseling and education to help women understand that the omega-3 supplement offers continued benefits during breastfeeding and should be continued beyond pregnancy.

The Importance of Omega-3 Fats During Pregnancy

It’s important to realize that your body cannot form omega-3 fats, so a fetus must obtain all of its omega-3 fats from his mother’s diet. Hence, a mother’s dietary intake and plasma concentrations of DHA directly influence the DHA status of the developing fetus, which can impact your child’s brain development.

Research has linked inadequate intake of omega-3 fats in pregnant women to premature birth, increased risk of preeclampsia, and low birth weight, in addition to hyperactivity in children. Adding EPA and DHA to the diet of pregnant women has also been found to benefit visual and cognitive development in the baby, while also reducing the risk of allergies in infants.4

After delivery and while breastfeeding, omega-3 fats continue to be important, both for baby and for mom. In women, low levels of omega-3 are linked to an increased risk of postpartum depression.5 In children, supplementation early in life increases intelligence.

In one study, a group of infants received either an omega-3 fat supplement or a placebo.6 Tests to evaluate their cognition were given every six months starting at age 18 months and continuing until they were 6 years old.

While no changes were noted in the early test done at 18 months, the study found that infants consuming omega-3 fats outscored the placebo group later, between 3 and 5 years old.

The omega-3 fat group scored higher on rule learning, vocabulary, and intelligence testing, which suggests early omega-3 fat supplementation, during the key period when your child’s brain is still developing, may pay off with greater intelligence in the pre-school and school-aged years.

Omega-3 levels even appear to influence sleep in children. Children taking daily supplements of omega-3 fats had nearly one hour more sleep and seven fewer waking episodes per night compared with children taking a placebo.7

Should Pregnant Women Eat Fish?

Fish has always been one of the best sources for the animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, but as levels of pollution have increased, this treasure of a food has become less and less viable as a primary source of healthy fats.

The good news is that about 70 percent of tested wild-caught fish consumed in the US contain relatively low levels of mercury.8 However, fish like tuna, marlin, shark, barracuda, and swordfish have some of the highest levels of contamination.

So while consuming fish can certainly be beneficial, pregnant women in particular should be sure to choose the right kinds of fish to receive maximum benefits with minimal exposure to pollutants like mercury.

Mercury can cross the placenta to harm the rapidly developing nervous system in your baby, including the brain. Studies have associated prenatal methylmercury exposure with impaired development of sensory, motor, and cognitive functions, resulting in learning difficulties, poor coordination, and inability to concentrate.

About 10 percent of the US population—including many children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age, in particular—have mercury levels above the levels currently recommended for fetal and child health.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are in the process of updating the national advisory for fish consumption for pregnant women, nursing mothers, women of childbearing age, and young children. They now recommend pregnant women eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury.

Tuna Is a Large Source of Mercury…

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