The raw materials to make a newborn baby come almost exclusively from what its mother ate during pregnancy. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that there has been a fair amount of scientific interest on the relationship between the maternal diet during pregnancy and the health and wellbeing the subsequent child. Perhaps the most obvious example of this concerns the role of folate in the prevention of so-called ‘neural tube defects’ such as spina bifida.
Other research has linked the adequate provision of nutrients with improved pregnancy outcome and childhood health. One example of this concerns the so-called ‘omega-3′ fatty acids found in fish and brain development in the growing foetus. One of the omega-3 fats found in fish known as ‘docosahexaenoic acid’ (DHA) is believed by some scientists to help in the normal development of the brain.
In a recent study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the effect of DHA supplementation during pregnancy was tested a group of 29 women . Half of these women ate cereals bars enriched with 300 mg of DHA (total average supplemental DHA per week was 1500 mg) while the other half ate cereals bars with no added DHA. The bars were eaten from 24 weeks gestation until delivery.
At 9 months of age the children from these pregnancies were tested for recognition memory and problem-solving ability. While scores for recognition memory were the same in both groups, the DHA supplemented group achieved significantly higher scores for problem solving ability.
This study was relatively small in size. Nevertheless, this so-called ‘intervention’ study does provide at least some evidence that supports the notion that DHA has a role in ensuring healthy development of the foetal brain. Below, I have pasted in a previous article regarding the principles and practice of optimal omega-3 intake during pregnancy.
1. Judge MP, et al. Maternal consumption of a docosahexaenoic acid-containing functional food during pregnancy: benefit for infant performance on problem-solving but not on recognition memory tasks at age 9 mo. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85(6):1572-7
The benefits of taking omega-3 fats in pregnancy – 10 July 2005
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.