The seafood-source omega-3 fat known as DHA is a critical component of human brains and eyes, and is essential to optimal child development.
While the results haven’t been uniform, most infant feeding studies show a significant, durable benefit to child brain development from diets higher in omega-3 DHA and omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA).
This is why makers of infant formulas started offering versions supplemented with DHA and arachidonic acid: DHA’s natural omega-6 companion fat in cell membranes.
The omega-6 fat called linoleic acid (LA) occurs in gross excess in American’s diets, due to its dominance in the most commonly consumed vegetable oils: corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower. Olive oil contains only 10 percent LA, versus the 20 (canola) to 75 (safflower) percent LA found in other common oils.
While humans can convert omega-6 LA to the omega-6 AA needed in cell membranes and vital to infant development, an excess of LA in the diets of pregnant mothers can reduce the flow of AA to their infants and cause developmental problems, as today’s study and a previous one by the same group (Bouwstra H et al 2005) show.
The Dutch study reviewed below supports the value of ensuring that pregnant women do two things:
- Consume ample amounts of omega-3s
- Cut back on the overload of omega-6 LA fat and partially hydrogenated oils in American diets, from vegetable oils, meats, poultry, and standard packaged or frozen foods
Note: The process of partially hydrogenating vegetable oils to increase their shelf life destroys their omega-3s and converts their omega-6 fatty acids into the artery-harming “trans” form that’s been in the news for its adverse artery impacts, and was banned recently in New York City.
Here are the details.
Omega-3s help and omega-6 fats hinder, infant development
Dr. Hylco Bouwstra and colleagues at Holland’s University of Groningen have published a series of important studies on the effects of omega-3s on “neurodevelopment”.
The latest one was designed to test the extended effects of different prenatal fatty acid intake on infants’ brain development up to 18 months of age (Bouwstra H et al Pediatr Res. 2006 Sep).
This was done by measuring the amounts of omega-6 fats, omega-3 fats, and trans fats (mostly omega-6) in the umbilical cords.
The cord tissue levels of various fats in infants mirror to a large extent the prenatal nutrition supplied by their mothers, which in turn reflects the mothers’ own diets.
At 18 months of age, the infants underwent neurological tests to examine motor functions such as grasping, sitting, crawling and standing as well as the quality of motor behavior, muscle tone, reflexes and cranial nerve function.
Each child was classified one of three ways:
- neurologically normal,
- showing signs of minor neurological dysfunction, or
- definitely abnormal.
The test scores were compared with the fatty acid concentrations of the infants’ umbilical cords at birth: a good measure of the babies’ fatty acid intake.
Fifteen children showed minor neurological dysfunction, and their umbilical veins were higher in trans fats than children in the normal group.
And those with the highest cord levels of trans-form omega-6 fats—derived mostly from the partially hydrogenated oils in their mothers’ diets—had the lowest brain scores.
And the brain test scores fell in tandem with umbilical cord omega-3 levels, with fewer omega-3s linked to poorer brain performance.
The Dutch team’s conclusion was clear: “…neonates [newborns] with a relatively low [omega-3] DHA status and those with high trans-fatty acid levels have a less favorable neurologic condition at 18 months.”
These results highlight again the dangers of two dominant dietary trends:
- “Omega-unbalanced” fat intake—that is, too much omega-6 from the vegetable oils omnipresent in American diets, and not enough omega-3 fats from fish and plant food sources like flaxseed, walnuts, and leafy greens
We’ll keep beating the drum for better “omega balance” in America and elsewhere, since an overwhelming body of evidence indicates that achieving it would be one of the most broadly effective ways help enhance and ensure people’s health.
- Bouwstra H, Dijck-Brouwer J, Decsi T, Boehm G, Boersma ER, Muskiet FA, Hadders-Algra M. Neurologic condition of healthy term infants at 18 months: positive association with venous umbilical DHA status and negative association with umbilical trans-fatty acids. Pediatr Res. 2006 Sep;60(3):334-9. Epub 2006 Jul 20.
- Bouwstra H, Dijck-Brouwer DJ, Decsi T, Boehm G, Boersma ER, Muskiet FA, Hadders-Algra M. Relationship between umbilical cord essential fatty acid content and the quality of general movements of healthy term infants at 3 months. Pediatr Res. 2006 May;59(5):717-22.
- Klingler M, Blaschitz A, Campoy C, Cano A, Molloy AM, Scott JM, Dohr G, Demmelmair H, Koletzko B, Desoye G. The effect of docosahexaenoic acid and folic acid supplementation on placental apoptosis and proliferation. Br J Nutr 2006;96:182-190. [PubMed]
- Muskiet FA, van Goor SA, Kuipers RS, Velzing-Aarts FV, Smit EN, Bouwstra H, Dijck-Brouwer DA, Boersma ER, Hadders-Algra M. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in maternal and infant nutrition. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Sep;75(3):135-44. Epub 2006 Jul 28. Review.
- Dijck-Brouwer DA, Hadders-Algra M, Bouwstra H, Decsi T, Boehm G, Martini IA, Rudy Boersma E, Muskiet FA. Impaired maternal glucose homeostasis during pregnancy is associated with low status of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCP) and essential fatty acids (EFA) in the fetus. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2005 Aug;73(2):85-7.
- Bouwstra H, Dijck-Brouwer DA, Boehm G, Boersma ER, Muskiet FA, Hadders-Algra M. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and neurological developmental outcome at 18 months in healthy term infants. Acta Paediatr. 2005 Jan;94(1):26-32.
- Dijck-Brouwer DA, Hadders-Algra M, Bouwstra H, Decsi T, Boehm G, Martini IA, Boersma ER, Muskiet FA. Lower fetal status of docosahexaenoic acid, arachidonic acid and essential fatty acids is associated with less favorable neonatal neurological condition. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2005 Jan;72(1):21-8.
- Bouwstra H, Boersma ER, Boehm G, Dijck-Brouwer DA, Muskiet FA, Hadders-Algra M. Exclusive breastfeeding of healthy term infants for at least 6 weeks improves neurological condition. J Nutr. 2003 Dec;133(12):4243-5.