The Benefits of Omega-3s During Pregnancy and Lactation
Pregnancy and lactation are the critical times for proper nutrition in a woman’s life. During prenatal development, there is a demand for and rapid accumulation of specific fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA) in the infant brain, DHA in the retina and AA in cells throughout the body. It is critical that pregnant women and nursing mothers consume enough omega-3s to ensure proper infant brain development.
DHA is important for optimal infant brain, eye and nervous system development for both the developing fetus and infant. DHA is present in human breast milk, but in varying levels. The demonstrated benefits of omega-3s led the infant formula industry to add DHA and AA to all infant formulas to ensure adequate levels in cases when a child is not able to be breastfed.
The human visual system continues to develop rapidly during the first 12 months of life. Studies show higher DHA levels in breast-fed infants are associated with better vision at 2, 4 and 12 months; and better vision maturation and function at 1 year of age. A recent meta-analysis reported significant benefits of long-chain omega-3s on visual acuity in infants during their first year of life.
Benefits of DHA in Childhood
In some cases, the benefits of DHA consumption during infancy may not be realized until childhood or even adulthood. Among infants who had been breastfed by women supplementing with DHA or consuming DHA-supplemented infant formula, studies have reported better verbal IQ and mental processing at 4 years of age; and significant benefits in learning, information processing, vocabulary and intelligence at 3 to 6 years of age.
Learning and Memory
Research supports that children with poor reading skills experience a decrease in self-esteem and other motivating factors for learning. Because of the importance of academic success to a child’s overall well-being and ultimate success in life, all factors, including nutrition, should be considered to optimize the learning environment. Low circulating levels of DHA may contribute to underperformance in children.
Sleep problems in children are associated with poor general health as well as behavioral and cognitive problems—symptoms that are also linked to deficient amounts of omega-3s. Researchers studied the association between blood fatty acid concentrations and sleep in healthy children 7 to 9 years old. After 16 weeks of supplementing 600 mg/d of DHA, researchers concluded children with higher blood DHA status were associated with significantly better sleep.
Consuming DHA is critically important for the healthy function of the heart. One of the most important and consistent effects of DHA is in reducing blood triglyceride levels—observed in individuals with normal blood lipid levels, but even more dramatic in those with elevated triglycerides. Research has also shown high levels of omega-3s are associated with a lower risk of heart failure and a reduced risk of death.
Most of the research on omega-3s and joint health is in the area of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), while the evidence to support omega-3s for osteoarthritis is still emerging. Omega-3s have been linked primarily to two beneficial outcomes in RA patients: improving inflammation and chronic pain, and reducing the amount of pharmaceuticals required to treat RA. In terms of osteoarthritis (OA), evidence supporting a benefit from consuming omega-3s is still developing.