Study finds sign of faster immune development in infants getting omega-3s from their mother's milk or formula
by Craig Weatherby
Danish researchers report that young children fed with infant formula containing fish oil enjoyed speedier maturation of their developing immune systems, compared with infants fed cow's milk or regular infant formula.
The study affirms the positive outcome of a 2005 study, in which the same Danish team tested the immunity-development effects of giving nursing mothers fish oil during the first few months of breast-feeding.
Here are the details of both studies, whose results bolster the wisdom of ensuring ample maternal omega-3 intake and of fortifying infant formula with omega-3s.
Kids fed fish oil display sign of faster immune-system maturation
Researchers from Copenhagen University and the Technical University of Denmark conducted a study in 64 healthy infants.
For three months, starting at nine months of age, the children received one of three diets:
- Cow's milk
- Infant formula
- Infant formula fortified with fish oil
The Danes tested the infants’ blood before and after the study period, and found one major difference between the three test groups.
Infants fed the formula fortified with fish oil had much higher levels of INF-gamma: a key marker for maturation of young immune systems.
As the researchers said, “…this study suggests a faster immune maturation with [fish oil] supplementation with no apparent reduction in immune activation. The implications for later health need further investigation” (Damsgaard CT et al 2007).
We hope someone takes them up on their suggestion and tests whether getting omega-3s early in life strengthens immunity through childhood into adolescence and adulthood.
In fact, there’s already some evidence that the risk of developing hypertension in adulthood drops when one’s diet is high in omega-3s during infancy (Das UN 2006).
Nursing infants’ immune growth also sped by moms’ fish oil intake
In an earlier study, the Danes recruited 122 nursing mothers whose fish intake fell below the population average.
(Since most people in Denmark eats lots of fish, these women’s fish intake probably approximated the American average, which is low in comparison Denmark and other Nordic countries.)
The researchers randomized the mothers into two groups: one was given capsules containing either fish oil (1.5 grams of omega-3s) while the other group took capsules containing olive oil (Lauritzen L et al 2005).
All of the mothers took the capsules throughout the first four months of nursing.
Blood was taken from all of the nursing infants at four months and 2.45 years of age, for testing.
At 2.45 years of age, blood levels of the immunity marker IFN-gamma were four times higher in the children of mothers who took fish oil, compared with the offspring of mothers given olive oil capsules.
These encouraging results suggest that we may continue to discover reasons why it was a very good idea when, in 2001, the FDA finally approved optional fortification of infant formulas with omega-3 DHA and omega-6 arachidonic acid. Both nutrients are essential to optimal brain development and occur in breast milk, but are absent from standard formulas.
The findings also provide added evidence that omega-3 fortification of infant formula should be made mandatory, which would also bring the price of fortified formula down sharply.
- Damsgaard CT, Lauritzen L, Kjaer TM, Holm PM, Fruekilde MB, Michaelsen KF, Frokiaer H. Fish oil supplementation modulates immune function in healthy infants. J Nutr. 2007 Apr;137(4):1031-6.
- Lauritzen L, Kjaer TM, Fruekilde MB, Michaelsen KF, Frokiaer H. Fish oil supplementation of lactating mothers affects cytokine production in 2 1/2-year-old children. Lipids. 2005 Jul;40(7):669-76.
- Dunstan JA, Roper J, Mitoulas L, Hartmann PE, Simmer K, Prescott SL. The effect of supplementation with fish oil during pregnancy on breast milk immunoglobulin A, soluble CD14, cytokine levels and fatty acid composition. Clin Exp Allergy. 2004 Aug;34(8):1237-42.
- Sacks FM, Campos H. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease: time to widen our view of the mechanisms. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Feb;91(2):398-400.
- Das UN. Hypertension as a low-grade systemic inflammatory condition that has its origins in the perinatal period. J Assoc Physicians India. 2006 Feb;54:133-42. Review.