We are witnessing increasing cases of pregnancy- related complications such as preterm birth (premature babies), low birth weight, and prenatal and postpartum depression being reported recently. While Indian mothers lay special emphasis on diet during pregnancy, there is definitely some lack of awareness or ignorance regarding certain essential nutrients that is leading to so many complications. One of them is the vital Omega 3 fatty acids!
The development of nerves in the growing fetus depends upon essential nutrients including DHA and EPA, popularly known as the omega 3 fatty acids . The omega 3 fatty acid is the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is converted to the fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the body. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, and some animal fat, especially in grass-fed animals. The conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is limited and hence foods containing ALA cannot be relied upon as a great source of EPA and DHA. Direct sources of EPA and DHA is certain algae and fish and fish oil supplements.
Specific benefits in pregnancy:
- DHA supports the growth and development of brain, eyes, and central nervous system which make it uniquely important for pregnant and lactating women.
- Increased intake of EPA and DHA has been shown to prevent pre-term labor and delivery, lower the risk of pre-eclampsia and may increase birth weight.
- Omega-3 deficiency also increases the mother’s risk for depression. This may explain why postpartum mood disorders may become worse and begin earlier with subsequent pregnancies.
- Omega-3s are also used after birth to make breast milk
During pregnancy, the dietary goal for omega-3 fatty acids is 650 mg, of which 300 is DHA.
Seafood consumption may be restricted to 2 servings of 180g (6oz) in a week (FDA 2004) to limit fetal exposure to trace amounts of neurotoxins. This amount of fish would provide approximately 200 mg of DHA per day.
Alternate sources of DHA include fish oil capsules, which provide variable amounts of DHA (ranging from 150–1200 mg/d), are nearly devoid of mercury and other harmful compounds like PCBs. So vegetarian mothers who are not consuming fish need to take at least 2 fish oil capsules of 1000-1200 mg each to fulfill daily requirements of DHA. Algal DHA is also an option for individuals wanting to avoid fish in any form https://blog.ekincare.com/2016/09/16/dha-from-algae-or-fish-sources-of-valuable-omega-3-fatty-acids/
Many prenatal vitamins contain up to 200 to 300 mg of DHA. DHA-enriched eggs are another source of omega-3 fatty acids and may contain up to 150 mg of DHA per egg.
Mothers should not ignore this very important nutrient in the diet throughout pregnancy and lactation. Although, there are no specific signs of deficiency of Omega 3 fatty acids, its functional benefits are too wide and abundant to let go.