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Omega-3’s for conception, pregnancy and a healthy baby

Omega-3's for conception, pregnancy

Omega-3’s are typically recommended for helping maintaining a healthy heart, reducing inflammation in conditions such as arthritis and supporting the nervous system for mood disorders.  But did you know that these essential fatty acids are also vital for conception, a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby?

Alarmingly 80% per cent of Australian adults do not meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) of omega-3’s through their diet. Pregnant women are no exception, and omega-3 deficiency impacts their own health and the health of their baby.

Unfortunately, it is a little trickier for pregnant women to get sufficient omega-3’s. Firstly, you need an additional 200 mg of DHA per day when pregnant and breastfeeding.  Secondly, many women are concerned about the contamination of omega rich fish with mercury and plastics therefore reduce their fish intake during pregnancy.

What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated, meaning that they have several double bonds in the chemical structure. The three most important types are;

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) found in grass-fed beef and nuts and seeds
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found in fatty fish and algae
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) found in fatty fish and algae

Common foods that are a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, fish oil, cod liver oil, algae, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. The omega 3’s derived from fish are more potent than those derived from plant sources because they’re taken up directly into the cell membranes. Before plant derived omega 3’s can be used by the body, they have to be converted into the form found in fish (EPA and DHA) and only 5-15% of ALA is converted to omega 3’s.

Conception, pregnancy and birth
The preconception period offers a wonderful opportunity to optimise the nutritional status and health of both parents.  Optimising omega 3 intake during this time can help to reduce inflammation, support hormone production and improve both sperm and egg quality which in turn increases the chances of conception, a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

Omega-3 fats, specifically EPA and DHA have been shown to

  • lowers the risk of having a premature baby (less than 37 weeks) by 11% (from 134 per 1000 to 119 per 1000 births
  • lowers the risk of having an early premature baby (less than 34 weeks) by 42% (from 46 per 1000 to 27 per 1000 births)
  • reduces the risk of having a small baby (less than 2500g) by 10%

Baby’s development
Essential fatty acids are building blocks for your baby’s brain and eye development, and an omega-3 deficiency during pregnancy can have permanent effects on your child’s cognitive function.

Your baby’s brain and eye development during pregnancy depend on docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. As we cannot make DHA ourselves, babies rely on their mother’s dietary intake to get what they need. Studies have linked high-DHA supplementation in pregnancy with greater memory and problem-solving ability in babies at nine months of age, improved attention in toddlers, and better hand-eye co-ordination in children aged two and a half years.  Getting enough DHA during pregnancy can therefore, support your child’s brain development and improve their overall cognitive function.

Omega 3 during breastfeeding
When breastfeeding, the mother’s own stores of omega-3’s can easily and quickly diminish. With women that have more than one child, the mother’s omega-3 stores can be depleted and omega 3 deficiency can be a contributing factor to post-natal depression.   Studies show that high omega-3’s can benefit the baby’s immune development, with a reduction in the incidence of IgE (allergic) diseases in the infant’s first year of life.

The solution
The most reliable way to get adequate omega-3 for both you and your baby is with a combination of food and supplementation.

It is important to note that most prenatal supplements do not contain enough omega-3s to provide adequate amounts alone.

Algae or Fish – What is best for me and my baby?
As long as you take a high quality, high dose supplement, both fish oil and algal oil will ensure you get the omega-3 fatty acids you and your baby require. However, here are some tips for choosing the right supplement for you:

  • Vegetarian/vegan diet: Algal oil is a great alternative to fish oil for women who are vegetarian, vegan or who just prefer not to consume fish products. Made from algae, this omega-3 supplement is not derived from an animal source. Fish get their essential fatty acids from eating algae,
     
  • Dosage: To get the benefits of omega-3 for you and your baby, you need a high dose of DHA, at least 600 mg/day. Look for a high potency supplement that contains approximately 300 mg of DHA per capsule; to get the right dose with a less potent supplement you would need to take a handful of capsules, which is especially difficult if you are feeling nauseous or have reflux! Algal oil is naturally higher in DHA than EPA, so it may be easier to get the DHA needed for baby’s brain development with an algal omega-3.
     
  • Purity: Algal oil is sustainably grown in a controlled environment that is not exposed to the harmful chemicals and contaminants found in our oceans, such as mercury, heavy metals or pesticides. For this reason, it is a clean source of omega-3. However, if you choose a fish oil made from small, cold water, pelagic fish, and select a supplement that has been purified by a process called ‘molecular distillation’, it will also be free of contaminants and safe for you and your baby.
     
  • Enteric coating: If you are one of the many pregnant women suffering from nausea or reflux, you may be reluctant to take fish oil in case it causes fishy burps that aggravate your symptoms. Fortunately, there are some alternatives that will not cause this unpleasant side effect. Algal oil is a vegan omega-3 option that is not derived from fish, and will therefore not have an unpleasant taste if it does repeat on you. Alternatively, an enteric-coated fish oil supplement, utilising special capsules that do not dissolve in the stomach, can help you avoid fishy burps that might make you feel sick.

Practitioner-Quality Omega-3s
To get the best results from your supplement, choose a high dose, high purity omega-3 supplement, and start taking it when you are thinking about trying for a baby, or as soon as you find out that you are pregnant.  Practitioner-quality supplements are usually more potent and pure than what is available over the counter.  Many cheaper fish oils oxides easily and can do more harm than good.

Make an appointment with Jean to discuss your Omega 3 needs, your preconception care or if you need help finding right supplement for you. 


References:
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[9] Meyer B. Australians are not meeting the recommended intakes for omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids: results of an analysis from the 20112012 national nutrition and physical activity survey. Nutrients. 2016 Mar;8(3):111. doi: 10.3390/nu8030111.
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