Pregnancy Vivian | 05 May 2011 10:52 am

Is Fish Oil Critical to Normal Fetal Development?

Normal fetal development depends on many things. But, Mom’s nutritional intake is of utmost importance. Prenatal vitamins are always recommended, particularly those that are rich in folate, vitamin C and other important nutrients. In recent years, doctors have begun recommending omega-3 supplements, too.

Omega-3s are long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acids found primarily in fish and fish oils. Pregnant women are cautioned to consume no more than two servings of fish per week, because of the risk of mercury contamination. Mercury intake during pregnancy leads to numerous birth defects and can cause miscarriage.

If they are tested for mercury and other contaminants, fish oil supplements are the best alternative to insure adequate omega-3 intake. Omega-3s, particularly DHA, are essential to normal fetal development, especially to normal brain and eye development.

DHA is found in human breast milk, but not cow’s milk or infant formulas, unless the formulas are fortified with DHA. About 40% of the nerve cells in the brain are composed of DHA. About 60% of the fatty acids in the retina, an area in the back of the eye responsible for central vision, are DHA.

Early studies showed that children who were breast-fed scored higher on IQ tests, were less likely to have behavioral problems, like ADHD, and had fewer allergies. It took years to for researchers to learn exactly what was missing in the formula-fed infant’s diet that accounted for the difference.

Today, we realize that the difference is DHA. Most infant formulas are now fortified with it, as a result.

Maternal blood levels of DHA drop by about 30% after birth. The drop is believed to be at least partially responsible for post-partum depression. Numerous studies have shown that low DHA levels in the blood are associated with depressive disorders and suicidal behavior. So, not only is DHA important for normal fetal development, it is also important for Mom’s mental health.

Supplementation is recommended for women that are breast-feeding, in order to provide the DHA necessary for healthy brain growth and the development of visual acuity. It also insures that the mother does not suffer from deficiencies.

Flaxseed supplements are promoted by some sources for their omega-3 content. But, like other plant sources, flaxseed does not provide DHA. If the mother is a strict vegan or objects to fish oil supplements for some other reason, marine algae supplements are an alternative. They cost more, but some of them are rich in DHA. That’s what the fishes eat.

Normal fetal development is not the only issue that researchers have looked at concerning omega-3 intake. The average diet is low in omega-3s, but high in omega-6s. Researchers believe that this dietary imbalance may lead to “fatter babies” and increased risk of obesity during childhood.

Omega-6 fatty acids are the primary component of corn oil. Most meats contain more omega-6s than 3s. The only logical way to correct the imbalance, insure normal fetal development, protect Mom’s health and perhaps, reduce the risk of childhood obesity is with fish oil supplementation.

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