An Emory University study in Mexican mothers and infants suggests that taking omega-3 DHA from seafood during pregnancy helps protect babies against illness during early infancy.
According to lead author Usha Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., “This is a large scale, robust study that underscores the importance of good nutrition during pregnancy. Our findings indicate that pregnant women taking 400 mg of DHA are more likely to deliver healthier infants.”
The randomized, placebo-controlled trial followed approximately 1,094 pregnant women and 849 infants in Mexico. (Imhoff-Kunsch B et al. 2011).
The women were assigned to take either algae capsules providing 400mg of omega-3 DHA, or placebo capsules, for the 30 days between the 18th and 20th weeks of their pregnancy.
As the authors concluded, “DHA supplementation during pregnancy decreased the occurrence of colds in children at 1 month and influenced illness symptom duration at 1, 3, and 6 months.” (Imhoff-Kunsch B et al. 2011)
Results show reduced cold symptoms in the omega-3 DHA group
First, the authors of the study – funded by the NIH and the March of Dimes Foundation – found higher omega-3 DHA levels in the breast milk of mothers in the omega-3 group.
All of the infants in the study were breastfed.
At one month of age, the infants in the DHA group enjoyed a 24 percent lower risk of cold symptoms, including a shorter duration of cough, phlegm, and wheezing.
Compared with babies of mothers in the placebo group, the DHA babies showed these outcomes at one, three, and six months of age:
One month – 26%, 15%, and 30% shorter duration of cough, phlegm, and wheezing, respectively.
Three months – 14% less time showing signs of illness.
Six months – 20%, 13%, 54%, 23%, and 25% shorter duration of fever, runny nose, difficult breathing, rash, and “other illness,” respectively.
Oddly, the DHA-group babies suffered slightly more rashes and significantly more vomiting.
Dr. Ramakrishnan and her colleagues previously reported that the babies of women pregnant with their first child, who took 400mg of omega-3 DHA during pregnancy, were 100 grams (3.5 oz) heavier at birth and 3/4 cm longer at 18 months of age (Stein AD et al. 2011; Ramakrishnan U et al. 2010).
Sorting out omega-3s
Of the two essential omega-3s – DHA and EPA, both found only in seafood and algae – DHA is the one considered most important to child development.
Humans can make DHA and EPA from the scarce plant-source omega-3 called ALA – found in beans, dark leafy greens, walnuts, and flaxseed – but this is a very inefficient conversion process.
And this conversion is made even more inefficient by Americans’ (and Mexicans’) grossly excessive intake of competing omega-6 fat from cheap vegetable oils … soy, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower … except hi-oleic sunflower oil, which is very low in omega-6 fats.
Imhoff-Kunsch B et al. Prenatal Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Infant Morbidity: Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics. Published online August 1, 2011. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1386
Imhoff-Kunsch B, Stein AD, Villalpando S, Martorell R, Ramakrishnan U. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation from mid-pregnancy to parturition influenced breast milk fatty acid concentrations at 1 month postpartum in Mexican women. J Nutr. 2011 Feb;141(2):321-6. Epub 2010 Dec 22.
Parra-Cabrera S, Stein AD, Wang M, Martorell R, Rivera J, Ramakrishnan U. Dietary intakes of polyunsaturated fatty acids among pregnant Mexican women. Matern Child Nutr. 2011 Apr;7(2):140-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-8709.2010.00254.x.
Ramakrishnan U, Imhoff-Kunsch B, DiGirolamo AM. Role of docosahexaenoic acid in maternal and child mental health.Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Mar;89(3):958S-962S. Epub 2009 Jan 28. Review.
Ramakrishnan U, Stein AD, Parra-Cabrera S, Wang M, Imhoff-Kunsch B, Juárez-Márquez S, Rivera J, Martorell R. Effects of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy on gestational age and size at birth: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Mexico. Food Nutr Bull. 2010 Jun;31(2 Suppl):S108-16.
Stein AD, Wang M, Martorell R, Neufeld LM, Flores-Ayala R, Rivera JA, Ramakrishnan U. Growth to age 18 months following prenatal supplementation with docosahexaenoic acid differs by maternal gravidity in Mexico. J Nutr. 2011 Feb;141(2):316-20. Epub 2010 Dec 22.