by Robin Jordan, CNM, PhD
What pregnant woman wouldn’t want to grow a smart baby, one that has every last genetically programmed fully functioning brain cell, is ahead of the preschool pack, becomes the straight-A class president, and attends an Ivy League university?
That might be a stretch. But research indicates that women who eat adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids—specifically DHA and EPA found in many fish and fish oils—have babies who have higher cognitive, verbal, and visual functioning than babies born to women with lower intakes of these fatty acids.
Additional benefits of consuming adequate DHA and EPA in pregnancy are higher infant birth weight and a reduction in risk of preterm birth. Research also supports a reduction in pregnancy hypertension and postpartum depression, and we’re not even getting into the gamut of health benefits for the general population! (Okay, a short list: decreased cardiovascular disease, hypertension and dementia, to name a few).
It all sounds easy, right? But it may not be that simple.
Separating Fact from Fiction
There are plenty of areas of confusion on omega-3s during pregnancy. A recent study making the news rounds does not support the findings of improved mental and visual function in offspring whose mothers consumed DHA and EPA supplements. There may be reasons for these results—or lack of. The researchers tested babies only up to 18 months old, and women’s prior patterns of DHA and EPA consumption were not taken into account. Now here’s where it gets confusing: the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet could have played a role in study findings. Omega-3s compete for binding spots in the body with omega-6s, primarily linoleic acid (LA). LA is found in foods containing corn, soybean and safflower oils (think crackers, cakes, soda), and beef--foods that are consumed in overabundance in today’s typical diet. DHA and EPA compete with LA for receptor sites in the body. So if a woman has a diet high in LA rich foods, then the DHA and EPA she takes in might not be used by the body. When people eat less omega-6s, they can make huge increases in their body’s omega-3s!
The Mercury Conundrum
What about fish? Isn’t it full of mercury? Only certain kinds of fish like shark, mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish are high in mercury. Many others are perfectly safe to eat. Just know what they are! Dr. Joseph Hibblen, a researcher with the US Department of Public Health has stated that the benefits of eating fish during pregnancy far outweigh any risks of eating safe fish during pregnancy. Based on his analysis of other studies, he concluded that the effect of not eating enough fish in pregnancy appears to be a 5-6 IQ point difference! The general guideline of “up to” two fish meals per week is being challenged by experts as too low, that pregnant women (and the rest of us!) should be eating more.
We don’t know everything about omega-3s in pregnancy; however, we do know enough to conclude that DHA and EPA are important to pregnancy and fetal health. Who knows the difference a few IQ points can make!
Midwives and other health care professionals, read Robin’s article on the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in the November/December issue of the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health.
Women, get more guidance on omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy from this free Share With Women handout.