Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in many vital functions of our bodies and contribute to our heart health and immune system. They also play an important role in fetal development and a sufficient omega-3 intake has many benefits for yourself and your baby. This article will explain all you need to know about what positive impact omega-3 fatty acids have on your unborn baby and small child, and how you can ensure you get enough of it. We will also look at mercury poisoning, which is often a concern for pregnant women consuming seafood.
Omega-3 Is Important For Your Unborn Child
Research has shown that omega-3s, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids, are essential for the development of the brain and eyes in unborn children. We know that in the third trimester the fetus consumes 50 to 70mg of omega-3 fatty acids daily to cover the needs of its growing metabolism. The concentration of omega-3 and therefore the available nutrients in the fetal blood depend on the intake by the mother and the concentration of these fatty acids in her blood.
The omega-3 fatty acids we are talking about when we mention fish oil supplements are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which are essential fatty acids, which means that our bodies cannot produce them itself but we have to consume them through our diet. They both are important, but influence different processes in our body. DHA influences and supports the brain, eyes and central nervous system and is therefore the one we are focussing on when we talk about pregnancy related omega-3s. EPA on the other hand plays an important role on a more systemic level and impacts the inflammatory response as well as the cardiovascular and immune system.
Other data shows that those omega-3 fatty acids may also influence the timing of gestation and therefore the risk of preterm births, as well as birth weight. Other benefits related to omega-3 consumption during pregnancy are improved neurodevelopmental outcomes and a decreased risk of infant allergies. Some studies that examine older children have also found that a sufficient intake of DHA by the mother during pregnancy may reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
Because the fetus uses the omega-3 for its own development it is important that expecting mothers consume sufficient amounts of DHA to cover both their own and their baby’s needs. Fetal brain growth accelerates during the second half of pregnancy but the baby will continue to accumulate DHA into its central nervous system up until its second year of life, so DHA intake by breastfeeding mothers is also still relevant up to that age. Relevant studies that have been conducted on animals further show that deprivation of those essential fatty acids can be associated with visual and behavioural deficits that can not be reversed with postnatal supplementation.
How To Make Sure That You Get Enough Omega-3
Fetuses get all their nutrients and energy from their mothers, so what pregnant women eat directly impacts the child’s development. The omega-3 requirements of expecting mothers are therefore likely to be higher than usual. The standard western diet however, does not provide sufficient amounts of these omega-3 fatty acids. The main source of omega-3 is seafood, mainly fatty coldwater fish such as mackerel or salmon.
For pregnant women however, the intake of this kind of food is limited to two servings a week because of the risk of mercury poisoning, which we will elaborate on below. There are plant based omega-3 sources such as flaxseed, too, but those contain a different type of omega-3 called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA can be transformed into EPA and then DHA in our bodies but this process is very inefficient so it is better to directly consume EPA and DHA from marine sources. But with this alone, it can be difficult to meet the required daily omega-3 intake, so for many pregnant women taking a high quality omega-3 supplement such as fish oil or red krill oil is a good option.
Next to omega-3 fatty acids there are also omega-6 fatty acids which have a slightly different molecular structure and work in different ways in our metabolism. We need both of those types of fatty acids for many of the processes in our bodies such as oxygen transport, energy storage and cell membrane function. However it has been shown that a diet that favours omega-6 over omega-3 fatty acids can create a pro-inflammatory environment, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. Therefore the consumption of food rich in omega-6 such as sunflower or corn oil should be minimized.
What type of fish?
Mercury is a substance classified as a reactive heavy metal that can cause damage to our nervous system when there is too much of it in our body. Mercury is emitted both by natural and human sources and through the water circuit of condensation and evaporation, can end up in rivers, lakes and oceans. There it gets converted into organic methylmercury which is a so-called neurotoxin that can accumulate in the tissue of marine animals. The toxin gets passed on through the food chain where the quantity that the tissue contains depends on the lifespan and predatory nature of the fish. Pregnant women are therefore advised against consuming fish such as swordfish or king mackerel and to only consume two servings of low-mercury seafood per week. While the essential nutrients for the fetus pass through the placenta, so can the methylmercury and studies have shown a positive correlation in maternal seafood consumption and neurotoxicity in exposed fetuses. This exposure may then have negative consequences on the developmental outcome and developing brain of the unborn child.
How Omega-3 Helps Mothers, Too
Omega-3 is not just good for the baby, but also for the mother! They help the baby in its most crucial time of development but studies have also shown that consuming long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids can contribute to reducing the risk of perinatal depression.
Depressive disorders affect 10-20% of women postpartum so it is an important health factor to consider. A healthy and happy mother means a healthy baby because raising a child requires a lot of energy and dedication. Studies have shown that depressive symptoms displayed by the mother also influence the wellbeing of the child.
Next to the impact on mental health omega-3 fatty acids have a range of other physical health benefits such as supporting our immune system, cardiovascular system and can also improve one’s skin.
There are many factors encouraging pregnant women to supplement their diet with fish oil or krill oil, so head over to our shop today to browse our range of high-quality products.