29 Apr Melbourne Naturopath – Essential Fatty Acids in Pregnancy
If you have ever browsed the shelves of your local supermarket or Pharmacy, you will have seen bottles of omega-3 capsules, typically recommended for maintaining a healthy heart and for reducing inflammation in conditions such as arthritis. Did you know that these essential fatty acids are also vital for a healthy pregnancy and for the health of your baby?
Omega-3: Vital for Baby’s Brain DevelopmentEssential fatty acids act as building blocks for your baby’s brain and eye development, and an omega-3 deficiency during pregnancy can have permanent effects on your child’s cognitive function. Scientific studies found that children whose mothers did not get enough omega-3 during pregnancy were more likely to score lower on tests of IQ, verbal intelligence, memory, fine motor skills, behaviour, social skills, and communication skills,1 compared with those whose mothers did get enough omega-3.
DHA Makes Smarter BabiesYour baby’s brain and eye development during pregnancy depend on docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. As we cannot make DHA ourselves, babies rely on their mother’s dietary intake to get what they need. Studies have linked high-DHA supplements taken in pregnancy with greater memory and problem-solving ability in babies at nine months of age,2 improved attention in toddlers,3 and better hand-eye co-ordination in children aged two and a half years.4 Getting enough DHA during pregnancy can therefore, support your child’s brain development and improve their overall cognitive function.
Omega-3 Reduces the Risk of Premature BirthPremature babies are at greater risk of medical problems that can continue to affect them as they grow older.
Fortunately, women with a higher intake of the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA, may be at lower risk of premature birth, according to two large scientific reviews that studied over 30,000 pregnant women and their babies.5,6Since being born premmie is the most common cause of serious health issues for kids under five,7 taking an omega-3 supplement can have lasting benefits for your child.
No-One Is Getting EnoughAlarmingly, 80% per cent of Australian adults do not meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) of omega-3, and among those who do, 90% take an omega-3 supplement.8 Pregnant women are no exception, and omega-3 deficiency affects both their own and their babies’ health.9 Unfortunately, it is a little trickier for pregnant women to get enough omega-3, compared with non-pregnant women. Firstly, you need 200 mg more DHA per day when pregnant.10 Secondly, many women are (rightly!) concerned about the effect of contamination of fatty fish (a rich source of omega-3) with mercury and plasticisers on their baby’s health. They therefore avoid eating it, reducing their intake of omega-3. The easiest way to get enough omega-3 to support your baby’s health is with adequate supplementation.
As brain development begins rapidly at conception, and continues throughout pregnancy and the first years of life, it’s best to start taking omega-3s as early as possible, and to continue throughout breastfeeding.Both fish oil and algal oil are suitable omega-3 supplements, as both are rich in EPA and DHA.
Algae or Fish – What’s Best for Me and My Baby?As long as you take a high quality, high dose supplement, both fish oil and algal oil will ensure you get the omega-3 fatty acids your baby requires. However, here are some tips for choosing the right supplement for you:
- Vegetarian/vegan diet: Algal oil is a great alternative to fish oil for women who are vegetarian, vegan or who just prefer not to consume fish products. Made from algae, this omega-3 supplement is not derived from an animal source. Interestingly, fish get their essential fatty acids from eating algae, so by choosing algal oil, you are skipping the ‘middle man’.
- Dosage: To get the benefits of omega-3 for you and your baby, you need a high dose of DHA, at least 600 mg/day. Look for a high potency supplement that contains approximately 300 mg of DHA per capsule; to get the right dose with a less potent supplement you would need to take a handful of capsules, which is especially difficult if you are feeling nauseous or have reflux! Algal oil is naturally higher in DHA than EPA, so it may be easier to get the DHA needed for baby’s brain development with an algal omega-3.
- Purity: Algal oil is sustainably grown in a controlled environment that is not exposed to the harmful chemicals and contaminants found in our oceans, such as mercury, heavy metals or pesticides. For this reason, it is a clean source of omega-3. However, if you choose a fish oil made from small, cold water, pelagic fish, and select a supplement that has been purified by a process called ‘molecular distillation’, it will also be free of contaminants and safe for you and your baby. To learn more about how to choose a high purity fish oil.
- Enteric coating: If you are one of the many pregnant women suffering from nausea or reflux, you may be reluctant to take fish oil in case it causes fishy burps that aggravate your symptoms. Fortunately, there are some alternatives that will not cause this unpleasant side effect. Algal oil is a vegan omega-3 option that is not derived from fish, and will therefore not have an unpleasant taste if it does repeat on you. Alternatively, an enteric-coated fish oil supplement, utilising special capsules that do not dissolve in the stomach, can help you avoid fishy burps that might make you feel sick.
Practitioner-Quality Omega-3sOmega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of premature birth and support your child’s brain development. To get the best results, choose a high dose, high purity omega-3 supplement, and start taking it when you are thinking about trying for a baby, or as soon as you find out that you are pregnant. If you are struggling to decide whether fish oil or algal oil is right for you, contact your natural healthcare Practitioner for advice tailored to your particular needs. Additionally, Practitioner-quality supplements are usually more potent and pure than what is available over the counter, so to get the best.
1 Coletta JM, Bell SJ, Roman, AS. Omega-3 fatty acids and pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2010 Fall; 3(4): 163–171. PMID: 21364848. 2 Judge MP, Harel O, Lammi-Keefe CJ. Maternal consumption of a docosahexaenoic acid-containing functional food during pregnancy: benefit for infant performance on problem-solving but not on recognition memory tasks at age 9 mo. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(6):1572-7. 3 Colombo J, Kannas K, Shaddy D, Kundurthi S, Maikranz JM, Anderson CJ, et al. Maternal DHA and the development of attention in infancy and toddlerhood. Child Dev. 2004;75(4):1254-67. 4 Dunstan JA, Simmer K, Dixon G, Prescott SL. Cognitive assessment at 2.5 years following fish oil supplementation in pregnancy: a randomised controlled trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2008;93:F45-F50. 5 Middleton P, Gomersall JC, Gould JF, Shepherd E, Olsen SF, Makrides M. Omega‐3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018(11):CD003402. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3. 6 Chen B, Ji X, Zhang L, Hou Z, Li C, Tong Y. Fish oil supplementation improves pregnancy outcomes and size of the newborn: a meta-analysis of 21 randomized controlled trials. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2016 Jun 17;29(12):2017-27. doi: 10.3109/14767058.2015.1072163. 7 Middleton P, Gomersall JC, Gould JF, Shepherd E, Olsen SF, Makrides M. Omega‐3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018(11):CD003402. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3. 8 Meyer B. Australians are not meeting the recommended intakes for omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids: results of an analysis from the 2011–2012 national nutrition and physical activity survey. Nutrients. 2016 Mar;8(3):111. doi: 10.3390/nu8030111. 9 Meyer B. Australians are not meeting the recommended intakes for omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids: results of an analysis from the 2011–2012 national nutrition and physical activity survey. Nutrients. 2016 Mar;8(3):111. doi: 10.3390/nu8030111. 10 Weiser MJ, Butt CM, Mohajeri MH. Docosahexaenoic acid and cognition throughout the lifespan. Nutrients. 2016 Feb; 8(99):1-40.