20
March
2024
|
12:59
Europe/Amsterdam

Rhiannon Lambert: The Connection Between Omega-3 and Pregnancy

Omega-3 fatty acids play a pivotal role in promoting optimal health, and during pregnancy, they become arguably even more important. Omega-3 fatty acids, comprising of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are understood to play a critical role in not only the development and future health of the foetus, but also the well-being of the expectant mother. Omega-3s are understood to be critical for foetal brain development, reduce the risks of preterm birth, and due to their known importance to brain health, they have been suggested to reduce the chance of the mother developing postnatal depression. However, worryingly, a recent study from the US found that 25% of the surveyed participants reported that they rarely, or never consumed fish (a potent source of omega-3) during their pregnancy!

Omega-3 is found in the highest abundance in wild (not farmed) fish which is why we recommend opting for Wild Alaska fish (including salmon, pollock and cod) to make the most informed and healthful choice. Wild Alaska Seafood sets itself apart with its abundant, sustainable, and scientifically managed runs in the pristine waters of Alaska. Beyond its exceptional taste, Wild Alaska Seafood offers countless health benefits - Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA, this wild-caught delicacy supports not only heart health but also contributes to optimal brain function. By choosing Wild Alaska Seafood, consumers not only indulge in a delicious meal, but also make a conscious decision that aligns with both personal well-being and environmental sustainability.

What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a category of polyunsaturated fats that are considered essential for the human body, meaning our bodies cannot make them on their own. This trio of essential fatty acids includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are not just a dietary necessity but are integral to numerous physiological functions, making them particularly crucial during pregnancy.

ALA, primarily sourced from plant-based sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, serves as a precursor to EPA and DHA -  meaning ALA can be converted by the body into DHA and EPA, the other two known types of omega-3 fatty acids. While the conversion rate of ALA to the active forms (EPA and DHA) is limited in the body, incorporating ALA-rich foods is still valuable for overall omega-3 intake. EPA and DHA, predominantly sourced from fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and pollock are known as the star players when it comes to omega-3 benefits. These long-chain fatty acids are integral components of cell membranes, playing a vital role in the structure and function of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Additionally, the consumption of omega-3s, particularly DHA and EPA abundant in fish and fish oils, is highly recommended for their well-researched prevention against the development of cardiovascular disease, and therefore promoting overall heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are also understood to be essential for maintenance of brain health and function, as well as having preventative potential against the development of some mental health disorders. These fatty acids really are critical for general health and well-being. 

Foetal Brain Development

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are understood to be critical in foetal brain development. DHA is a structural component of cell membranes and is particularly abundant in the brain and retina of the eyes, making it incredibly important for the development of cells in these areas. 

During pregnancy, the demand for DHA increases, particularly in the third trimester - a period characterised by rapid foetal brain growth. The developing foetal brain relies heavily on DHA for its structural framework and therefore it contributes to the formation of neuronal membranes, through the growth of synapses and ensuring proper signal transmission. Its presence is particularly pronounced in the cerebral cortex, the epicentre of higher cognitive functions such as language, memory, decision-making, emotion and personality. 

Research suggests that there is a positive correlation between maternal DHA intake during pregnancy and enhanced cognitive function in offspring. Adequate DHA levels have been associated with improved attention span, problem-solving abilities, and higher intelligence scores throughout childhood. Importantly, inadequate DHA levels as a foetus can have adverse effects on the development of the child’s brain and may lead to long-term behavioural consequences.

Reduced Risk of Preterm Birth

Emerging research sheds light on the potential role of omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, in mitigating the risk of preterm labour. Preterm birth, occurring before 37 weeks of gestation, poses significant challenges for the health and well-being of both the newborn and the mother. Factors influencing preterm birth are multifaceted, encompassing genetics, lifestyle, and overall maternal health. 

Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, may act as a protective shield against preterm birth. Reasoning for this is likely due to the anti-inflammatory properties of these fatty acids which play a pivotal role in modulating the immune response and reducing the risk of premature labour. Inflammation, when not finely regulated in the body, can trigger a cascade of events leading to preterm labour. In fact, almost half of all preterm births are caused or triggered by an inflammatory process in the body. Omega-3s, renowned for their anti-inflammatory prowess, help maintain a balanced inflammatory response in the body, creating an environment which may be less likely to cause premature contractions. 

Omega-3 and Post-Natal Depression

The postnatal period, often hailed as a time of joy and bonding, can also bring an incredibly challenging postnatal depression. Scientific exploration has delved into the potential role of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA, in mitigating the risk of developing postnatal depression. 

Postnatal depression is characterised by persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, lack of enjoyment, lack of energy, concentration difficulties and finding it hard to look after herself and the baby, and affects a significant number of new mothers. In fact it’s far more common than you may imagine, affecting more than 1 in every 10 women within a year of giving birth.

The interplay of hormonal changes, likely sleep deprivation, and the demands of motherhood contributes to the vulnerability to postnatal depression. The brain is an incredibly complex organ and undergoes dynamic changes during pregnancy and the postnatal period. As previously mentioned, omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, play a critical role in the development of the foetal brain, but importantly, they are also paramount for supporting maternal mental well-being. Research is beginning to emerge which suggests that omega-3s may contribute to mood regulation and emotional well-being which could prove beneficial to the prevention and/or treatment of postnatal depression. However, this area of research is still young and further high quality clinical studies are needed to confirm this relationship. It’s also important to note here that everybody is unique, and what may work for some, may not work for others which is why when it comes to mental health, parents should have open and honest communication with their healthcare providers to ensure they receive the best care for their individual needs. 

Ensuring Adequate Omega-3 Intake

Incorporating omega-3-rich foods into the maternal diet is a key strategy for obtaining these essential fatty acids. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and pollock are excellent sources of EPA and DHA. However, be mindful of where your fish has been sourced from. Wild fish has been found to contain higher levels of nutrients, including omega-3, than farmed fish. Opt for Wild Alaska Seafood which promises that your seafood is not farmed, instead caught from the wild, there are no nasty chemicals involved, and is far more sustainable than farmed seafood. Plant-based options like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae-derived supplements provide the precursor ALA, but remember the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA in the body is relatively inefficient which is why the consumption of omega-3 derived from seafood is often favourable. 

Prioritising the intake of omega-3 during pregnancy can be incredibly tough for a lot of women due to many reasons such as nausea and vomiting symptoms and dietary needs and requirements, which is why for many, an omega-3 supplement may be necessary. However, a diet-first approach is always the preferred method of deriving nutrients as they arrive into the body in their natural form, and are more likely to be more bioavailable to the body for utilisation. In fact, research has shown that obtaining omega-3 fatty acids from fish is more effective at increasing levels in your body than relying on fish oil capsules as supplements. Nevertheless, taking an individualised approach to nutrition and health throughout pregnancy is essential, there is no one size fits all when it comes to this. It is strongly advised that you consult your healthcare provider or a dietician or nutritionist if you are ever concerned about your diet and its potential effect on the developing foetus. 

Summary

The consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is so incredibly important during pregnancy, with their benefits ranging from foetal brain development to potentially reducing the risk of preterm birth and postnatal depression. Striking a balance between dietary sources, such as fish and plant-based options, and, when necessary, supplements rich in DHA, offers a strategic approach to meet the dynamic nutritional needs of both mother and baby. As ongoing research expands our understanding on the role of omega-3 in pregnancy, we understand that it is a vital component in prenatal care, providing nourishment to yourself and your child for a healthier and happier pregnancy journey. However, it is important to be mindful of where your food is coming from, which is why (if you choose to eat fish) we suggest opting for Wild Alaska Seafood which promises you quality fish that is naturally packed full with nutrition and has been sustainably sourced from the Alaskan waters.

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References

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