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Fish Oil in Pregnancy Benefits Babies’ Brains

Healthnotes Newswire (February 1, 2007)—Pregnant women who took fish oil supplements high in the fatty acid DHA had children with greater hand–eye coordination, according to a new study in which 98 women started taking fish oil supplements 20 weeks into their pregnancies and continued until delivery.

“During pregnancy, large amounts of DHA and arachidonic acid are deposited in the fetal retina and brain,” said Susan L. Prescott, MD, PhD, of the School of Pediatrics and Child Health, University of Western Australia. “These fatty acids, found in fish oil, seem to be critical for normal nervous system and visual development.”

The research, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, was a splinter from a larger study on the effects of fish oil supplementation on allergies. Therefore, all of the pregnant volunteers in this study had allergies. They were randomly assigned to receive either four 1-gram capsules of fish oil per day (a relatively high amount) or a matching olive oil placebo. The fish oil supplements provided 2.2 grams of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and 1.1 grams of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), both essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Among women who received the fish oil supplements, levels of the protective omega-3 fatty acids were higher in blood samples taken from the umbilical cords at birth, indicating that a higher amount of the fatty acids were transferred to their newborns. Babies with the highest levels of the omega-3 fatty acids in cord blood had the best hand–eye coordination when assessed at age 2 1/2 years.

Children who received the prenatal fish oil supplementation also tended to perform better in all areas of development studied, including personal, social, speech and hearing, performance, and practical reasoning. They also had higher scores for receptive language, average phrase length, and vocabulary scores. In previous research, infants given fish oil supplements have shown improved visual function.

“There have been concerns that a relatively selective supplementation (with omega-3 but not omega-6 fatty acids) could have detrimental effects by displacing other essential fatty acids,” said Professor Prescott. “Our results indicate that supplementation with a relatively high-dose fish oil during the last 20 weeks of pregnancy is not only safe but also seems to have potential beneficial effects that need to be explored further.”

(Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. doi:10.1136/adc.2006.099085)

Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.

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