By A H Williams
Omega-3 fatty acids, often derived from fish oil, are an important micronutrient for general health and wellness. One of the most important things omega-3’s do is to improve brain function. Because the most important time for brain development is prior to birth and early childhood, omega-3 levels play a highly important role during this period. In addition to a multivitamin and good general health, prospective mothers should know that omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are critical for early childhood nutrition.
Mechanisms of Brain Development
The impact of fish oil on brain function and development has been known, but poorly understood for many years. At a basic level, the fish oil component DHA is believed to provide stronger, more flexible membranes for brain tissue. The fish oil component EPA is also important for general health but has less impact on brain function. Studies show that DHA may make up over 20% of the dry mass of your brain. In addition to providing a more flexible tissue environment for neural growth, DHA is also a first-line antioxidant, protecting the developing cells from free radical damage.
The child’s brain develops during the third trimester, largely with the help of DHA taken directly from mom. Since most people don’t get enough DHA to begin with, pregnant mothers may be starving the child of micro-nutrients required for brain development.
Critical Periods for Omega-3 Supplementation
1. During Pregnancy. Norwegian researchers supplemented pregnant mothers and then followed their children for subsequent IQ tests (1). At four years of age, these researchers found that maternal intake of DHA significantly correlated with her child’s performance on mental processing (IQ) tests. This point makes perfect sense: DHA is most needed while the brain is being built during the third trimester. In fact, your DHA status as a mother correlates with higher birth weight, length, and head circumference for your baby (2). Babies need DHA for brain development, but they need it before their infant formula can give it to them. In fact, they need expecting mothers to be supplementing with it before giving birth.
2. During Nursing. Most infant formulas now contain DHA because of the demonstrated positive impact on mental processing skills. Make sure to use infant formulas containing certified vegetarian DHA. This way, you will ensure that the supplements you are providing for the baby are free from contaminating metals like mercury that sometimes accompany fish oil. For mothers who are breastfeeding,I would recommend taking a substantial dose (up to 1 g) of high-DHA fish oil or vegetarian DHA.
By ensuring an adequate supply of DHA during the critical periods of brain development, your child can be assured the best chances for optimal neural development. Numerous studies have now shown lifelong advantages to adequate childhood nutrition.
So let’s summarize what we’ve covered here:
1. Fish oil component DHA is critical for proper brain function and development.
2. Proper DHA nutrition is critical BOTH during pregnancy and nursing.
3. Vegetarian DHA is the best choice for supplementation during pregnancy. It’s not manufactured from fish, so there is no chance for mercury or cadmium contamination.
4. By supplementing with 500 mg-1 g DHA per day, expecting mothers can ensure that their babies are gaining optimal nutrition for brain development.
Your baby will thank you later.
1. Helland, IB, Smith, L, Saarem, K, et al. “Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age.” Pediatrics. 111 (2003) e39-44. 2. Hornstra, G. “Essential fatty acids in mothers and their neonates.” Am J Clin Nutr. 71 1262S-9S.