Omega 3 Fatty Acids (DHA) During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding
This section is in fact the impetus behind this website. While my wife was pregnant, there was not a great deal of information to be found about omega 3 fatty Acids and pregnancy. In this portion of the FAQ I have compiled all the information that I have acquired into what I hope is a helpful treatise on the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids during pregnancy. I would like to stress that I am not a doctor and what you find here does not constitute medical advice. This website is the result of the many hours I have spent researching omega 3 fatty acids for health reasons, as well as specifically their role in my wife’s pregnancy and my children’s development. Please refer to my sources in the footer should you wish to find out more about these fatty acids and the claims I am repeating on this website. Anyone who is pregnant or wishes to become so and intends to supplement their diet with fish oil capsules should speak with their physician beforehand. There have been numerous studies over the years about the beneficial relationship between pregnancy and DHA intake and here I have tried to summarize them and provide some simple answers.
Omega 3 fatty acids are required nutrients for prenatal development. While a baby will derive his or her nutrition from the mother’s body, a pregnant woman should consume enough omega 3 fatty acids to satisfy both her and her baby’s requirements. The most critical omega 3 fatty acid is DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). Found throughout the body, it is a key structural fat and is integral in the development of the retina, the brain, and the heart. In fact, approximately 97% of all omega 3 fatty acids found in the brain is DHA as well as 93% of the omega 3 fatty acids in the eyes is DHA.1-2 Many medical professionals believe that DHA is key to maintaining a healthy pregnancy and the consumption of DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding has, in some studies, shown a direct relationship with increased mental processing (i.e. IQ score) of the child.3-4 The most common question I hear (which I had a hard time finding the answer to back then) is “How much DHA should I take when pregnant or breastfeeding?”
A number of studies have shown that the optimal intake of DHA during pregnancy or breastfeeding is 300 milligrams per day. That is 300mg of DHA, not “omega 3 fatty acids.”5-6 This number has been affirmed by studies reviewed in a workshop by the National Institute of Health and the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids (NIH/ISSFAL). Since omega 3 fatty acids tend to stay in the bloodstream over time, this requirement can usually be met by consuming two to three portions of fatty fish per week (such as wild salmon, sardines, or any other deep water fatty fish) or by taking omega 3 Supplements during pregnancy. Some people prefer to take supplements to lower the possible risk of contaminants in certain fish. Physicians suggest that women who are pregnant or who intend to become pregnant should avoid Swordfish, Shark, Mackerel, and Tilefish, and should limit their intake of White Albacore Tuna to less than 6oz per week due to the potential for contaminants (mercury, PCBs, etc., which move up the food chain and concentrate in the large predatory fish). For overall recommendations of how much DHA a person should take in all walks of life, please review our omega 3 Recommendations page.
DHA is also one of the fatty acids in omega 3 fatty acid (or fish oil) supplements, and can be an inexpensive and effective way to increase one’s intake of omega 3 fatty acids. Be careful to read the label, however, to make sure that you are getting the proper amount of DHA (not just “omega 3 fatty acids”) as well as ensuring product purity since different brands may vary greatly in quality. Read our omega 3 supplements section below for further information about what to look for in a supplement.
What about all the supplements out there and how do I know I’m getting the right one?
There is a tremendous variety of sources for omega 3 fatty acids these days. Some are arguably better than others. The FDA recommends that women who are pregnant or nursing and young children eliminate shark, swordfish, king mackerel in the mackerel family, and tilefish (also referred to as golden bass or golden snapper) from their diets completely and limit their consumption of other fish to 12 ounces per week (approximately 3 to 4 servings/wk) to minimize exposure to methylmercury7. This does not at all mean avoid fish, but there are also a number of supplements on the market, some of them marketed specifically to pregnant and lactating women. One of them, for example, is called Expecta Lipil made by Meade Johnson. This particular brand differentiates itself from the ‘fish oil’ brands by way of extracting the DHA directly from the originating algae, by which method they can guarantee the product’s quality and purity (note, I have no affiliation in any way with any companies or brands mentioned on this website). The issue being that there is a potential for contaminants (in the form or mercury, flame retardants, PCBs, etc.) in lower quality fish oil, as these substances move up through the food chain and concentrate in large, predatory fish. While anyone who is pregnant is right to avoid any product that may have these contaminants, many brands of fish oil based omega 3 fatty acids use a process called molecular distillation to purify their product, and the physicians with whom I have spoken feel that this high level or purification results in a product that is safer than consuming fish such as salmon or swordfish. Some of these supplements are also less expensive than products marketed specifically for pregnant and lactating women. Some brands do not use this process, and I personally avoid them to mediate the risk of mercury and other contaminants. If you decide to take fish oil supplements, the label should indicate whether this process was used.
Most of the brands marketed specifically for pregnant and breastfeeding women contain DHA derived from algae which are farmed for the task, not harvested from the oceans. This algae is the primary source for the DHA that finds its way into fish. By extracting the DHA from algae grown specifically for this task, the risk of contaminants can be removed. One need not buy one of the targeted brands to get this quality DHA, however. Many of these brands repackage the Neuromins brand of DHA, which can also be found in many other products *not* specifically targeted to pregnant and breastfeeding women, and may be less expensive than the targeted brands. However, always expect to pay more for DHA derived from algae rather than from fish oil as these are expensive to produce.
1 Lauritzen L, et al. The essentiality of long chain n-3 fatty acids in relation to development and function of the brain and retina. Prog Lipid Res, 2001. 40:1-94. (Calculated using Table 1 data. 22:6n-3/Total n-3)
2 Martinez M. Tissue levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids during early human development. Pediatr, 1992.120:S129-38.
3 Ingrid B. Helland, MD, Lars Smith, PhD, Kristin Saarem, PhD, Ola D. Saugstad, MD, PhD and Christian A. Drevon, MD, PhD, PEDIATRICS Vol. 111 No. 1 January 2003, pp. e39-e44.
4 Cohen JT, et al. A quantitative analysis of prenatal intake of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cognitive development. Am J Prev Med, 2005. 29:366-374.
5 Simopoulos AP, et al. Workshop on the essentiality of and recommended dietary intakes for omega-6 and omega 3 fatty acids. J Am Coll Nutr, 1999. 18(5): 487-9.
6 Influence of Dietary Fatty Acids on the Pathophysiology of Intrauterine Foetal Growth and Neonatal Development. Consensus Conference: Dietary fat intake during the perinatal period, 11-14 September 2005, Wildbad Kreuth/Germany. Dietary Recommendations for Pregnant Women. http://www.perilip.org/PERILIPRecommendations.html
7 Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, US Food and Drug Administration. Consumer advisory: an important message for pregnant women and women of childbearing age who may become pregnant about the risks of mercury in fish. March 2001. Available at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg.html. Accessed October 7, 2002.
8 Makrides, Gibson, McPhee, Yelland, Quinlivan, Ryan, DOMInO Team. Effect of DHA Supplementation During Pregnancy on Maternal Depression and Neurodevelopment of Young Children. JAMA. 2010;304(15):1675-1683. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1507.
Further reading: Wikipedia