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Pregnancy, Fish Oil And Smarter Babies
According to a recent study published in the ‘Archives of Disease in Childhood’ in 2006, babies born to women who took fish oil supplements during the last 4 months of pregnancy had better hand-eye coordination, were better talkers and could understand more at the age of two and a half than babies born to mothers who were given olive oil instead.
The double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial was conducted by the University of Western Australia and led by Professor Susan Prescott. Also involved in the study were the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, the Princess Margaret Hospital for Children and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and the Center for Child Health Research Australia.
A total of 98 women were initially enrolled in the study, all of whom were non-smokers and who did not regularly consume more than 2 servings of oily fish per week. A total of eighty-three of these women completed the study. Researchers gave half of the women in the trial 4 g of fish oil supplements on a daily basis from twenty weeks of pregnancy, and these supplements contained a combination of both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The rest of the women received 4 g of olive oil. Developmental checks were carried out on a total of 72 of the babies when they were two and a half years old.
The babies whose mothers were given fish oil had a significantly higher hand-eye coordination score than the babies whose mothers had been given olive oil instead. Growth rates were similar in both groups, as were general language skills, but the fish oil group showed higher receptive language, sentence length and vocabulary scores. The positive results were not related to possible influencing factors such as the age of the mother and the duration of breastfeeding, as these factors had already been taken into account.
Fatty acids and the brain
The connection between Omega 3 fatty acids and the brain is already well established, and many studies have now shown that fish oil can alleviate the symptoms or help prevent the onset of several types of depressive disorders, including postnatal depression. EPA in particular is thought to improve concentration and memory and cognitive function in general, and some studies have shown that it may even help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is during the last three months of pregnancy that the child’s brain develops very quickly, and it is therefore a time when it is particularly important that the mother gets enough of the essential Omega 3 fatty acids, which are only found in essential amounts in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and anchovies. These fatty acids promote healthy brain structure and development, and many professionals now believe that it is DHA that is important for brain structure and EPA for efficient brain function on a daily basis.
Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK are currently investigating the benefits of giving fish oil to children, as much of the evidence to date has come from dietary factors during pregnancy. For example, previous research from Bristol University showed that children whose mothers ate fish regularly during pregnancy had better vision and cognitive development and behavior than those whose mothers ate little or no fish.
So why don’t we just eat more fish?
Because of the potentially high levels of toxins, especially mercury, in fresh fish, the current recommendation is that pregnant women and women and girls who may have a baby one day in the future eat no more than 2 servings of fish per week, one of which must be fatty, and no more than 4 portions of fish for everyone else, of which no more than two must be fatty.
The indications are that pharmaceutical grade fish oil can be an option for everyone, including during pregnancy and later. In fact, this type of fish oil is superior to standard fish oils and is becoming more and more popular because the processes involved in producing it mean that the oil has been filtered and concentrated to contain high levels of all essential fatty acids without danger for toxins associated with fresh fish.
The Australian study suggests that there are no negative effects for mother or baby from taking relatively high doses of fish oil at the end of pregnancy. Not only can it have a beneficial effect on the baby’s cognitive development and reduce the risk of developing postnatal depression, there are also numerous other health benefits associated with taking fish oil. However, if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant and would like to consider the possibility of taking fish oil supplements, it is important that you first discuss the consequences with your doctor or other healthcare provider.
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