Whilst most would-be mums will be cognisant of folic acid’s role in the prevention of birth defects such as spina bifida, they may be less familiar with other dietary factors that can influence the development of their unborn child. For instance, evidence suggests that certain nutritional elements found in fish can contribute to the healthy formation and function of the foetus’ brain. Recent research published on-line in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that higher intakes of fish by women during pregnancy were found to be associated with improved intelligence in their offspring. It seems it’s never to early in life to view fish as brain food.
Whilst it is not known for sure what it is in fish that may boost brain power, the smart money seems to be on the omega-3 fats found most plentifully in so-called ‘oily’ fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and sardine. Omega-3 fats come in two main forms: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). While both of these fats appears to have benefits for the brain, DHA seems to be particularly important early on in life, including during gestation, in that it actually contributes to the normal structure of this organ.
In theory, higher levels of DHA in the maternal diet during pregnancy should assist brain development – something that would be expected to reflect positively on a child’s abilities and behaviour. This concept is supported by a British study published last year in the journal Epidemiology which found that increased fish consumption by mothers during pregnancy was associated with improved language and social skills in their kids. Also, higher intakes of DHA during pregnancy have been associated with improved weight and head size of babies at birth. Still other evidence points to the omega-3 fats as a potential protective factor against premature birth and low birth weight.
Those wanting to keep up a good intake of DHA during pregnancy would do well to consume a couple of portions of oily fish such as mackerel or sardine each week. Tuna is often said to be an oily fish, although in its canned form it actually contains relatively low levels of omega-3 fats. Another feature not to recommend about this fish is that it tends to be contaminated with mercury, which the recent Environmental Health Perspectives study and other research has linked with impaired neurological development in the womb. Other species of fish that tend to contain elevated levels of mercury to avoid during pregnancy include swordfish and marlin.
Those who don’t like fish, might consider supplementing with MorDHA (see www.mor-epa.com), a DHA-rich fish oil supplement, at a dose of 1000 mg (1 g) per day. Vegetarian women obviously do not have the option of consuming fish or fish oil supplements, so may be interested to know that vegetarian DHA (extracted from algae) is now available. One algae-derived DHA supplement is Healthspan’s Cerebrum vegetarian DHA (www.healthspan.co.uk). By feeding the brain, it seems that DHA has the ability to give babies a head start in life.