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Mothers’ Fish Oil Supplements Benefit Kids' Brains
1/4/2007
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by Craig Weatherby



The omega-3 fatty acid called DHAwhich occurs in significant amounts only in fish oil and mothers’ milkdominates the structures of human brains and retinas, and is essential to their functioning.


This has led to decades of research designed to determine whether mothers’ intake of DHA enhances the development of their children’s brains and vision.


There is substantial evidence that higher fish or fish oil intake by mothers and infantsor use of infant formulas fortified with DHAcan yield developmental benefits, although the results have been mixed.


A new study from Australia adds significant new evidence that infants’ brains benefit when their mothers take fish oil.


It also indicates a down side to excessive consumption of the omega-6 fatty acids consumed in gross excess by most Americans, which compete with the omega-3s in fish oil for inclusion in human cell membranes. Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in most vegetable oils (except olive, macadamia, and hi-oleic sunflower oils) and in the packaged and restaurant foods in which they are typically used.


Researchers at the University of Western Australia conducted a well-designed (double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled) clinical trial among 83 non-smoking women who agreed to eat no more than two portions of fish per week.


Some of the participating women received placebo capsules containing four grams of olive oil, while the others were given capsules containing four grams of fish oil, including 2.2 grams of omega-3 DHA and 1.1 grams of omega-3 EPA.


The supplement regimen began at 20 weeks after conception, and continued until delivery.


Their infants were examined and tested when they were 21/2 years old, to evaluate their language skills, behavior, practical reasoning capacity, and hand-eye coordination.


Results favor fish oil and put omega-6 fats in a poor light

The children of mothers who’d taken fish oil supplements displayed significantly better hand-eye coordination, scored higher on measures of vocabulary and language comprehension, and the average phrase-length of their speech was longer.


These findings persisted after the researchers took into account other potentially influential factors, including the mother's age and the duration of breast feeding.


As the researchers said, “Maternal fish oil supplementation during pregnancy is safe for the fetus and infant, and may have potentially beneficial effects on the child's eye and hand coordination.”


It was clear the omega-3s in the fish oil were responsible, since improved good hand-eye coordination also correlated with high levels of omega-3s in umbilical cords at birth.


And it is important to note that the children with higher tissue levels of omega-6 fatty acids had the lowest scores: a finding that offers further evidence that these nutrients can be counterproductive when consumed in excess, as is usual in developed countries.



Sources

  • Dunstan JA, Simmer K, Dixon G, Prescott SL. Cognitive assessment at 21/2 years following fish oil supplementation in pregnancy: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2006 Dec 21; [Epub ahead of print]
  • Lauritzen L, Jorgensen MH, Olsen SF, Straarup EM, Michaelsen KF. Maternal fish oil supplementation in lactation: effect on developmental outcome in breast-fed infants. Reprod Nutr Dev. 2005 Sep-Oct;45(5):535-47.
  • Lauritzen L, Jorgensen MH, Mikkelsen TB, Skovgaard M, Straarup EM, Olsen SF, Hoy CE, Michaelsen KF. Maternal fish oil supplementation in lactation: effect on visual acuity and n-3 fatty acid content of infant erythrocytes. Lipids. 2004 Mar;39(3):195-206.
  • Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, Saugstad OD, Drevon CA. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children's IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):e39-44.
  • Auestad N, Scott DT, Janowsky JS, Jacobsen C, Carroll RE, Montalto MB, Halter R, Qiu W, Jacobs JR, Connor WE, Connor SL, Taylor JA, Neuringer M, Fitzgerald KM, Hall RT. Visual, cognitive, and language assessments at 39 months: a follow-up study of children fed formulas containing long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids to 1 year of age. Pediatrics. 2003 Sep;112(3 Pt 1):e177-83.
  • Wright K, Coverston C, Tiedeman M, Abegglen JA. Related Articles, Links
  • Formula supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA): a critical review of the research. J Spec Pediatr Nurs. 2006 Apr;11(2):100-12; discussion 112-3. Review.
  • Rioux FM, Lindmark G, Hernell O. Does inadequate maternal iron or DHA status have a negative impact on an infant's functional outcomes? Acta Paediatr. 2006 Feb;95(2):137-44. Review.
  • Innis SM. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in human milk: an essential role in infant development. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2004;554:27-43. Review.
  • Koo WW. Efficacy and safety of docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid addition to infant formulas: can one buy better vision and intelligence? J Am Coll Nutr. 2003 Apr;22(2):101-7. Review.

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