Omega 3 in pregnancy

Scientific research is constantly expanding our knowledge of the nutritional needs of pregnant women and fetuses. The most recent developments in this field pertain to the importance of omega-3 fatty acids both in the development of a healthy child and in the health of the mother.

The omega 3s

Omega-3s are a category of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are defined as essential as they are indispensable for the proper functioning of our body and for our health.

Unfortunately they are not synthesized by the human body, and therefore must be obtained through diet or supplementation.

The most biologically active forms of omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA ) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), elements that are derived mainly from marine sources, such as shellfish and seaweed. About these two elements:

  • eicosapentaenoic acid supports the heart, the immune system and our inflammatory responses against external pathogens
  • docosahexaenoic acid supports our brain, eyes and central nervous system, which is why it is uniquely important for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Most pregnant women probably do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids because the main food source, seafood, is for various reasons not recommended for them or limited to some types or in any case limited to 2 servings per week. 

The benefits of omega 3 in pregnancy

benefits for the fetus and, subsequently, for the child

  • Prenatal consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may act as an adjuvant in the development of the immune system and influence the inflammatory response of newborns.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for fetal neurodevelopment, and may also be important for gestational age and birth weight. 
  • Adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is vital during pregnancy, as they are key building blocks of the fetal brain and retina. 
  • Recent studies support the hypothesis that DHA supplementation during pregnancy may reduce the incidence of respiratory symptoms in children with a maternal history of atopy (hereditary predisposition to allergic diseases).
  • Omega-3s are also used by the body after birth to prepare breast milk. With each subsequent pregnancy, mothers are further depleted.
    • Research has confirmed that adding docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to the diet of pregnant women has a positive effect on the child’s visual and cognitive development.
    • Studies have also shown that higher consumption of omega-3s can reduce the risk of allergies in children. 

benefits for the pregnant woman first and then for the mother

  • Increased intake of EPA and DHA has been shown to prevent premature labor and delivery, reduce the risk of preeclampsia, and may even increase birth weight.
  • Omega-3 deficiency also increases the mother’s risk of depression. This fact may explain why mood disturbances after childbirth can worsen, and with subsequent pregnancies begin earlier. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in determining the length of gestation and in preventing perinatal depression (the perinatal period is from pregnancy to the first year postpartum.  
  • Adequate intake of omega-3 fats is essential to maintain balanced production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. The prostaglandinsthey serve to regulate many important physiological functions (blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission, inflammatory and allergic responses, kidney and gastrointestinal tract functions, production of other hormones). Depending on the type of fatty acid in the diet, some types of prostaglandins may be produced in large quantities, while others may not be produced at all. This imbalance can lead to disease. The role of omega-3s in the production of beneficial prostaglandins may explain why they have been shown to have so many health benefits, including preventing heart disease, improving cognitive function and regulating inflammation. 
  • High doses of omega-3s have been used to treat and prevent mood disorders.
  • Recent studies are identifying their potential benefits in relation to a wide range of conditions including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Foods rich in omega 3

The best sources of EPA and DHA are salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies and herring.

Many people are rightly concerned about mercury and other toxins in fish, especially during pregnancy.

For this reason, purified fish oil supplements are often the safest source of EPA and DHA. A high-quality fish oil supplement from a “reputable” manufacturer provides the health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) without the risk of toxicity.

Some brands of fish oil are higher quality than others.

A “reputable” fish oil manufacturer should be able to provide documentation of third-party laboratory results showing the purity levels of their fish oil, down to the particles per trillion level.

Many people think flaxseed or flaxseed oil contains omega-3s. However,

  • flaxseed contains the shorter chain omega-3, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is different from the longer chain EPA, and DHA.
  • EPA and DHA are the omega-3s our bodies need for optimal health and development.

Dose recommendations

The World Health Organization for pregnancy and lactation suggests a consumption of 200-500 mg per day of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA ) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). 

According to the European Food Safety Agency and the  LARN 2014 , in addition to the 200 mg indicated as the daily requirement of omega-3 (EPA and DHA), the DHA requirement increases by 100-200 mg per day during pregnancy and lactation . 

Katherine Johnson, M.D., is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist with clinical expertise in general obstetrics and gynecology, family planning, women’s health, and gynecology.

She is affiliated with the Obstetrics and Gynecology division at an undisclosed healthcare institution and the online platform,

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