Enjoying the omega-3 effect during pregnancy and infancy.
Expectant and new mothers, you’ll be happy to know that one simple oil change can help you enjoy a healthier pregnancy and have a smarter baby. While eating more omega-3s is health-building for all ages, there is a stage of life when the omega-3 effect may have the most profound influence: during pregnancy and infancy. Here’s how to give your baby a smart start.
You’ll be amazed how this one nutrient contributes so much to a healthier pregnancy. Here’s a summary of what science says. Mothers who ate more omega-3s during their pregnancy enjoyed:
Besides the above research showing that pregnant mothers who eat sufficient omega-3s lower their risk of medical problems, I want to tell you about another piece of exciting new research that has gotten mixed reviews among pregnant mothers. Researchers found that mothers who take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy “enjoy” an increase in the duration of their pregnancy by 3-6 days and reduce the risk of delivering a premature baby.
Scientists believe that omega-3s help regulate prostaglandins, the chemical messengers that initiate uterine contractions. This may not be welcome news to those of you who can’t wait for your delivery day, but a few more days in your womb greatly increases the chance of your baby being born with healthier lungs and fewer problems associated with prematurity. Anything you can do to increase maturity is good for your baby.
What’s good for baby is good for mommy. For our next bit of omega-3 encouragement, let me take off my obstetrician hat and put on my psychiatrist hat. Not only does eating extra omega-3s during pregnancy grow smarter and healthier babies; new research suggests it may help mothers be happier during pregnancy and after birth.
It’s exhausting being a mommy. With all the change of routine and lack of sleep it’s no wonder moms get worn out and down, and begin to show a bit of ‘baby brain.’ Guess what? Though the science is still in its infancy, some research suggests that the more omega-3s mothers eat during pregnancy and after birth, the less postpartum depression they suffer.
Here’s my theory on why:
Research links depression with low omega-3 blood levels. Studies show that maternal blood levels of omega-3s decline after delivery. After birth it takes several months for mothers’ omega-3 blood level values to return to normal. This stands to reason since the baby, a little nutritional parasite, gets first dibs on available nutrition, sometimes at the expense of mother’s health.
Baby diverts the omega-3s he needs from mother’s blood during pregnancy and breastfeeding. He literally sucks the omega-3s out of mom, leaving her with an omega-3-deficiency. A mother should take in enough omega-3s for both herself and her baby.
The exciting field of psychoneuroendocrinology reveals another reason why pregnant mothers should eat more omega-3s. During the last trimester, a pregnant woman’s immune system perks up to protect both mother and baby from infection and to prepare mother’s body for birth, such as ripening the cervix.
These high levels of pro-inflammatory and protective biochemicals, called cytokines, need to be regulated by high levels of omega-3s. If these cytokines get too high, they can lead to abnormalities in sleep, energy, and moods. These new insights put the post-partum state in the spectrum of an inflammation disorder or an “itis.” The potent anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3s puts a bit of a brake on mother’s hyped-up immune system and helps mellow her moods.
A baby’s brain grows most in the third trimester of pregnancy through the first two years of life. Research reveals that a baby’s brain growth in the womb extracts the most DHA from mother’s blood during the last three months of her pregnancy. That makes sense since this is the time that the baby’s brain grows most rapidly.
The amount of brain DHA starts rapidly building up from about 22 weeks gestation to at least two years of age – the period of most rapid brain growth. Since the brain is 60 percent fat and omega-3 DHA is a top fat in the brain, it makes sense to feed your pre-born baby, infant, and child more omega-3s.
Infancy and toddlerhood are critical windows of brain development during which nerves must go through two growth features: myelination and nerve connections, both of which are dependent upon adequate omega-3s in baby’s diet. If these trillions of nerves are not both myelinated and connected during this window of rapid brain development, they are pruned, meaning the body treats them like weeds or useless plants that must be pulled out or cut.
In a fascinating study, mother monkeys whose diets were low in brain-building omega-3 ALA were more likely to deliver baby monkeys with smaller brains and delayed brain development.
Another study of 4800 children whose mothers had taken fish oil supplements during pregnancy, compared to a control group whose mothers received a placebo found higher intelligence tests in children at age four. The mothers were supplemented with fish oil containing 2 grams per day of omega-3s from 18 weeks of pregnancy to three months postpartum.
The more myelination and connections (and less pruning) a child goes through in the first five years, the smarter the brain develops. Omega-3s provide the “grow nutrients” that enable this to happen. If baby nerves could talk they would say, “I’m going through a growth spurt, feed me smart foods so I can think faster, and help me make the right connections.” That’s why some pediatricians call omega-3s grow foods.
To give you an idea, a single nerve fiber, or neuron, in the brain may make as many as twenty thousand connections with other nerve fibers during its life. If you were a developing brain and your intelligence depended on the connections you made with other nerve fibers, wouldn’t that be where you would concentrate the smart fats?
That’s exactly what the brain does. These connections, called synapses, have a higher concentration of DHA than nearly any tissue in the body. The more connections, the smarter the brain.
Just in case you aren’t convinced, here’s a clincher. If I were to ask, “What’s the most exhausting part of being a new mother?” a chorus of tired moms would shout, “Sleep! Lack of sleep!” A study showed that mothers who had high levels of omega-3s in their blood during pregnancy had babies who enjoyed more mature sleep patterns.
Before you all rush out to buy a bottle of fish oil or go to your nearest seafood market, there is a lot more you need to know. So, let’s go fishing for more information. Let me share with you more exciting research on these healthful omega-3 effects.
Breastfeeding moms, you’ll be happy to know that science confirms what you all intuitively suspect. Breastfed babies are smarter and healthier. Yet, research reveals the breastmilk content of DHA in the breastmilk of North American mothers tends to be lower than in many other cultures who eat more seafood. Here’s what science says:
When researchers studied a group of children breastfed as infants they found that the length of breastfeeding positively correlated with the baby’s IQ at six and a half years of age. The researchers wondered why.
Mothers who eat the standard American diet (SAD) make milk that is considerably lower in omega-3s than milk made by women in cultures who eat more seafood. In a 2006 study of the omega-3 DHA content of breastmilk of mothers from nine countries, DHA was highest in breastfeeding mothers in Japan and the Arctic cultures, and lowest in Canada and the United States.
Researchers put these clues together: Studies showed that brain tissue of breastfed infants contained higher DHA than the brains of formula-fed babies. This discovery prompted more researchers to wonder whether this IQ increase could be due to the rich level of omega-3 DHA and EPA in mother’s milk. The same research showed that breastfeeding mothers who took omega-3 supplements had increased content of EPA/DHA in their breastmilk.
The omega-6 (linoleic acid) content in breastmilk has increased from 6-7 percent of total fatty acids in 1945 to 15-16 percent in 1995, reflecting a steady increase in omega-6s in mother’s diet. Some researchers are concerned that this increase in omega-6s may weaken the omega-3 effect of breastmilk.
Putting all this together, the general conclusion of medical experts was that mothers should continue their prenatal omega-3 supplements while breastfeeding. As a bit of encouragement for mothers who are tempted to wean early, imagine every time you breastfeed your baby you are giving your baby a dose of “smart milk.” What a smart investment!
This is an excerpt from The Omega Effect, written by Dr. Bill Sears. Used with permission.
What are Omega-3s and why are they so healthy?