Why do Omega-3s matter?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for our health and development and support the functioning of nearly every aspect of our bodies. Of the Omega-3s acids EPA and DHA are two of the most beneficial - together they’re responsible for a number of unique health benefits. EPA supports the heart, immune system, and inflammatory response, while DHA supports the brain, eyes, and central nervous system. The catch? Omega-3s can’t be synthesized by our body and instead must be obtained through dietary means. (Cue frantic googling.)
Unfortunately for most Americans our western diets are intrinsically low in Omega-3s. In fact, the majority of us don’t consume enough DHA or EPA and should seek some form of supplementation.
Omega-3s and pregnancy
This imbalance is particularly true for pregnant women. Because omega-3s must be derived from a dietary source the fetus uses any omega-3 consumed by the mother to support its development in the womb. As a result pregnant women are much more susceptible to omega-3 deficiency. Why is this important for expectant moms? Below are the three main reasons.
Number 1: Preterm Pregnancy Health
Research has linked insufficient levels of omega-3 in pregnant women to premature birth, increased risk of preeclampsia, and low birth weight in newborns. A study conducted in the Faroe Islands, where women consume a high intake of marine omega-3, compared their gestation period and newborn birth weight to that of pregnant women in Denmark.
Babies born to mothers in the Faroe Islands had higher birth weights than babies from Denmark, and Faroese women, when compared to Danish women, had an increased gestation period of approximately 5.7 days.
Number 2: Fetal Development
EPA and DHA are critical to fetal development. Studies have shown that DHA supports the healthy growth of the central nervous system as well as the brain and retina development of the baby during the mother’s third trimester. Animal studies have shown that omega-3 deficiency during pregnancy is linked to both visual and behavioral deficits that cannot be reversed post-birth. Emily Oken, a researcher from Harvard University, closely tracked the benefits of omega-3 consumption during pregnancy. After monitoring the fish intake of hundreds of pregnant women, she evaluated the verbal IQ of their children when they turned 3. Adequate omega-3 intake during pregnancy was consistently associated with higher scores.
Number 3: Perinatal And Postpartum Depression
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to decrease levels of cytokine production. Cytokines are a type of inflammatory protein that exists in elevated levels within people who suffer from depression.
Because omega-3 is transferred to the fetus during pregnancy it’s easy for women to have depleted levels of this essential nutrient. This deficit may potentially lead to depressive symptoms both pre and post birth.
Pregnant women are often understandably reluctant to take antidepressant medication while pregnant or breastfeeding - a natural solution may be to increase their intake of omega-3 to help reduce postpartum symptoms.
So where can I get Omega-3s?
Fatty fish are an excellent source of omega-3s and, up till now, eating fish has widely been considered to be the optimal way to consume this essential nutrient. Many pregnant women in the United States, however, don’t eat much, if any, fish during their pregnancy for fear it might contain toxic levels of mercury or other ocean contaminants. (Not to mention the population of vegan mothers that won’t ever consume fish.) The FDA has similarly recommended that pregnant women limit their intake of fish to 2 servings per week because it may contain toxins harmful to the development of the fetus. As a result most expecting mothers don’t ingest an adequate amount of omega-3s. It’s therefore been recommended that pregnant women augment their omega-3 intake through daily supplementation.
While supplementing with fish oil might seem like a good solution, fish oil is derived from the same fish women are cautioned to avoid because of possible heavy metal contamination. On top of that, fish oil supplements are often processed using artificial ingredients that may potentially harm the mother and child (like hexane, for example). By supplementing omega-3 intake with algae oil, however, pregnant women can confidently and safely consume the recommended amount of both EPA and DHA without any ocean toxins. After all, fish get their omega-3s from algae in the first place.