by Geri Walton ~ January 9th, 2009
The benefits of omega-3s fatty acids are extolled around the world, and, almost everyone knows they offer cardiovascular and heart-health benefits. If you’re pregnant, they may also offer you more than just heart health. Research from the Child & Family Research Institute shows that many Northern American diets are still based on saturated fat intakes popular from the 1950s. Such saturated fat pregnancy eating may be detrimental to both the mother and the unborn children, whereas diets rich in omega-3s offer numerous health benefits.
The Child & Family Research Institute revealed that when a pregnant woman takes omega-3s during pregnancy, she aids the development of her child’s brain, retinas, and central nervous system and that if she avoids fish or is deficient in omega-3s, it may pose risks to her infant’s neurological development. In fact, the study found that signs of these deficiencies were observed in two-month-old babies. Tests were conducted to evaluate neurological maturity in non-verbal babies because “since the eyes are connected to the brain, they reflect the brain’s development.” The tests evaluated how well babies could distinguish lines of different widths, and researchers discovered omega-3 deficient babies were not nearly as successfully as their non-deficient counterparts in distinguishing the lines.
It’s not just a child’s vision that may benefit from omega-3s. According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, skin disorders, such as eczema, may also be reduced in mother’s who consume high amounts of fish during the last few weeks of pregnancy. The study revealed mothers who had high fish intake in the last four weeks showed a statistically significant protective effects against eczema and an overall decreased risk of the child ever developing eczema. On the other hand, women who ate high amounts of vegetable oil and margarine, significantly increased the risk their child would be diagnosed with eczema by age two.
Something else interesting about omega-3s is that many studies are showing that omega-3s significantly affect behavior and thinking. Moreover, some studies are showing that lack of concentration or aggressive behavior often found in prison inmates can be linked to low levels of omega-3s. While that doesn’t mean omega-3s will fix every problem or prevent aggressive behavior, it does mean omega-3s are important in diets and that these fatty acids are intricately connected to the brain and to brain health. In fact, a number of studies have shown omega-3s reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
Depression is often an issue for pregnant women because it seems the extraordinary physical demands placed on a pregnant woman’s body can be overwhelming and leave her fatigued and depressed. In fact, some studies show perinatal depression is extremely common, and, although some women take antidepressants during pregnancy to help with the depression, many health care professionals have concerns about how those medications affect both mother and unborn child. For this reason, many health professionals seek better options for their pregnant patients, and among these options are omega-3s.
A study recently published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and conducted by Kuan-Pin Su, MD, and colleagues, revealed that depression seems to be associated with a decrease in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and that “a profound decrease of omega-3 PUFAs in the mother during pregnancy is associated with the higher demand of fetal development and might precipitate the occurrence of depression.” Researchers also found women who consumed omega-3s had significantly “lower depressive symptom ratings” than non-consuming omega-3 women. Moreover, PUFA deficiencies have been linked to such pregnancy related problems as preeclampsia and premature or low birth weight babies. The belief is omega-3s offer health and happiness for both the baby and mom.
The International Society for the Study of Lipids and Fatty Acids (ISSFAL) recommends every pregnant or lactating woman in the United States consume 300 mg daily of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid, and they claim omega-3 is particularly important in a woman’s last trimester. Does that mean every expectant mom should run out and purchase omega-3s? As usual, you should never take anything when you’re pregnant without first talking to your health care professional, and if you do decided to take supplements, look for supplements made specifically for pregnant women or those derived from algae. Avoid supplements made from fish livers or fish sources, as they reportedly contain high amounts of Vitamin A (retinol), which has been linked to birth defects.
In the meantime, if you want to know what omega-3-rich foods you can include in your diet, at the top of the list are fatty fish, such as wild salmon (not farmed as there may be unsafe levels of dioxin and polychlorinated byphenols (PCBs) in farmed salmon), sardines, catfish, and canned tuna. However, women who might become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children have been warned to avoid king mackerel, shark, swordfish, or tilefish because of mercury toxicity. If you’re worried about mercury toxicity, read Mercury Levels of Fish and Shellfish to determine which fish contain the highest levels of mercury. Additionally, pregnant women are also warned to consume no more than 12 ounces of fish per week. If you’re not crazy about fish, another way to add omega-3s to your diet (even though they have lower levels of omega-3s) is to eat walnuts, pecans, flaxseed, omega-3-fortified eggs, soy foods, beans, cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, and other dark green vegetables.