Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Pregnancy and Fetal Development

Educating TTC Couples to the Importance Omega-3s

Doctors indicate that Omega-3 fatty acids are a vital nutritional contributor to enhanced pregnancy health. But unlike folic acid, which is today well-known for its pregnancy and preconception benefits in preventing common birth defects, the profound value of Omega-3 fatty acids is just now becoming clear in nutritional research – and to the public. Hence, very few TTC or pregnant women know much about Omega-3s – or get the Omega-3s they need as part of their pregnancy and nursing diet-regimen.

The fact is, recent scientific literature suggests that Omega-3 fatty acids play a key part in pregnancy health – and in the healthy development of your baby. The benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are clear. To summarize recent research conclusions, Omega-3s…

  • Offer critical nutrients for the neurological development of your baby.
  • Promote the development of your baby’s cardiac and respiratory systems.
  • Support the development of your baby’s brain and eyes (development of visual centers).
  • Have been shown to increase the learning and cognitive function of your child, with effects measurable to age four.
  • Increase the attention span of your child (a measurable component of intelligence early in life) .
  • Support the pregnancy health of the mother, possibly reducing chances of toxemia (or pre-eclampsia).
  • May help prevent pre-term labor and premature delivery.

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are key to human growth and development, but are not naturally synthesized by the body. This means that Omega-3s must be obtained from foods, particularly from seafood sources, oils (e.g., flaxseed oil), or dietary supplements. In technical terms, Omega-3s are “long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids” and are broken down into two fatty acid categories: DHA and EPA. Research indicates that EPA is important in promoting the development of prenatal and infant cardiac and circulatory systems. DHA, however, seems to receive more attention and accolades from the scientific community with regard to pregnancy health.

DHA is key to the developing brain, accumulating in vast amounts during infant development and during the first years of your baby’s life. DHA is a central component of the nervous system and promotes neurological development, particularly with regard to the eyes and to fundamental cognitive function. Studies suggest that a baby born to a mother with high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in her system will more likely have advanced cognitive faculties and an increased attention span (a fundamental non-verbal indicator of intelligence in very early childhood). These effects have been measured up to age four, suggesting that there are long-term benefits of Omega-3 fatty acid consumption during pregnancy and nursing.

DHA benefits also include the support of retinal development and enhanced visual function. One study tested over seventy mothers and their babies from between 4 and 8 months of age. The study tested for visual acuity and visual-cognitive learning ability by showing infants pictures and measuring reactions. Results indicated that babies born to mothers with elevated DHA levels had increase visual “skills” and faculties.

Of course, health benefits of Omega-3s are not restricted to fetal and early-childhood development. For mothers and mothers-to-be, higher dietary intake of Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease the risk of pregnancy complications like toxemia (or pre-eclampsia) and reduce the odds of postpartum depression. Equally important, higher levels of Omega-3s may also decrease the chances of premature delivery (pre-tem labor).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids & Pregnancy: Overcoming Nutritional Deficiency

Large internal stores of Omega-3s, as well as a higher dietary intake of Omega-3s, contribute to fetal and pregnancy health – this much is clear. Omega-3s are stored by the body and brain of the mother, and the nutritional benefits of dietary Omega-3 fatty acids will be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy through the placenta. During pregnancy, however, if your diet does not contain sufficient Omega-3 fatty acids, your baby will begin to “draw” Omega-3s from your own internal stores in the brain. This can cause a long-term Omega-3 deficit (a deficit extending even to future pregnancies) if Omega-3s are not regularly consumed from external food and/or supplement sources.

Unfortunately, in a “typical” North American diet, we receive inadequate amounts of these key fatty acids. Research indicates that this nutritional deficiency is traced to a decreased consumption of fish, seafoods, and other sources of Omega-3 fatty acids over the past decades. The good news, however, is that Omega-3 fatty acids can be easily replenished through simple dietary change or supplementation. Sources suggest that pregnant women should receive about 250 mg of DHA daily – though very few women actually do.

Eating more seafood is one very simple solution, with one large caveat: increased pollution, contaminants, and mercury levels in many species of fish (particularly some types of tuna, swordfish, and larger predatory fish). For a pregnancy diet, the FDA has even suggested limits on how much and what kinds of fish a woman can safely consume on a weekly basis. Mercury, in particular, is a neural toxin which can hurt a baby’s developing brain or cause birth defects. High levels of PCBs (or polychlorinated byphenols), which may be found in farmed salmon, have also been linked to birth defects. Raw or undercooked fish is, of course, a no-no for other reasons.

The other good news is that, in addition to some types of safer seafoods (moderate amounts of salmon, pacific cod, and canned tuna), there are dietary sources of Omega-3 fatty acids that do not contain pollutants or mercury. Indeed, newer dietary supplements offer purified (contaminant free) Omega-3s – some from seafood sources and some from flaxseed oil, etc. A supplement like PeaPod Omega-3 is specifically designed for pregnancy, and is certified mercury-free. For nursing mothers, an Omega-3 (or other pure sources of Omega-3s) are highly advised because fatty acid nutrients pass directly from mother to child via breast milk.

In a way, Omega-3 fatty acids are like the new folic acid. It’s common knowledge that trying-to-conceive and pregnant women should have a diet high in green, leafy vegetables or other sources of folic acid (including prenatal vitamins). With Omega-3s, its simply a matter of educating couples to the importance of this key nutrients when it comes time to having a baby. A diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids may become the new pregnancy-health watchword very soon.

For more information regarding Omega-3s and preconception/pregnancy, please consult with your physician.

Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

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