Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Development
By Rhianna Ross, RHN
Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids During Fetal Development
You have likely heard of the importance of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil for brain and heart health, but did you know they play a crucial role in fetal and infant brain development?
While these fats are essential for everyone, they are especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding women, babies, and growing children.
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and eicosapentaenoic acid.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in the human diet. Used as an energy source by the body or stored for later use. Very small amounts are converted to EPA and DHA.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA): Both DHA and EPA are found in certain types of seafood such as fish, and in some algae. Needed by every cell in the human body for structure, DHA and EPA are extremely important to human health.
DHA, EPA, and Pregnancy
While both EPA and DHA are often lumped together when we talk about the importance of EFAs, EPA and DHA do behave differently in the body. Both fats are important during fetal development in utero and in the development of the brain and eyes after birth.
DHA and EPA are needed during the formation of our central nervous system (CNS) and eyes, which begin to form at just 16 days of gestation and will steadily develop until the third trimester when development significantly speeds up and brain size triples. While intake of omega-3s is important throughout pregnancy it is especially important during the last phase of growth.
While not as important in the development of a baby’s brain and central nervous system, EPA plays a role in the balance between different essential fats and helps to increase levels of DHA in cord blood and helps DHA transport through the placenta.
Both EPA and DHA help to reduce inflammation and protect the placenta from oxidative stress. A placenta with high inflammation levels can hinder fetal development. This is especially important for women with diabetes, preeclampsia, and overweight women as inflammation is higher in these groups. High inflammation levels in the mother’s body can increase the risk of the baby developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or weight issues later in life.
Low levels of either DHA or EPA in a mother during pregnancy and while breastfeeding can negatively impact baby’s brain development in the first 6 months of life. A lack of DHA and EPA in breastmilk can cause baby’s levels to drop even if they were optimal at birth. Low levels can impair attention, focus, and may slow learning milestones.
DHA, EPA, Brain and Eye Development
The highest amounts of DHA are found in the retina (our eyes), as well as the grey matter and frontal lobe of the brain. Our frontal lobe is involved in memory, language, social and sexual behaviour, and motor function.
DHA and EPA are needed for proper formation, development, and maintenance of the eyes. Deficiencies can lead to macular degeneration and dry eyes later in life.
A lack of DHA and EPA during pregnancy can harm the development of a baby’s cognition. Cognition is what enables us to perceive our world, respond to what we see, and to process and remember events that happen to us.
Some examples of what is included in cognition are:
- Creating goals and planning achievements
- Focus and attention
- Impulse control
- Long term planning
- Understanding and foreseeing consequences of behaviour
Poor cognitive function can affect not only our ability to learn in an academic setting but can also negatively impact how we act in social settings as well as how we deal with emotions.
Mothers and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Not only are DHA and EFA healthful for a developing baby, but it helps to support the health of the mom too. In addition to the general DHA and EPA health benefits for adults, supplementing with fish oil offers benefits specific to pregnant and nursing women.
Mothers with a low ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in early pregnancy are at an increased risk of postpartum depression. Supplementing with omega-3s throughout pregnancy reduces the chances of experiencing depression during pregnancy as well as postpartum depression. For those who do experience depression during or after pregnancy, supplementing with omegas can reduce the severity.
Benefits of DHA and EPA Supplementation During Pregnancy
- Reduces the risk of preterm births
- Reduces the risk of low birth weight
- Increases motor skills (muscle movement)
- Improves cognition (mental processes)
- Increases sensory development (physical senses like touch and sight)
- Reduces chances of the baby developing asthma in childhood
- Protects the mom, baby, and placenta from inflammation
- Can help reduce chances or severity of postpartum depression
Food and Fatty Acids
It is important to pick quality sources when choosing EPA and DHA rich foods. While fish is a great source, some species are high in heavy metals, are endangered, or are caught using unsustainable methods. Smaller wild fish, with a short life cycle, are usually the best option. For example, herring, anchovies, sardines, salmon, and trout.
Best Sources: can be eaten daily:
- Canned wild salmon (while low in mercury, avoid BPA-lined cans)
- Wild salmon (chum, Coho, pink pacific, wild pacific)
Can be eaten often: 1 to 2 times a week
- Arctic char
- Atlantic mackerel
- Salmon (Chinook, sockeye, steelhead)
- Rainbow trout
Eat sparingly: no more than 1 to 2 servings
- Albacore tuna
- Mahi mahi
- Lake whitefish (trout)
- Red snapper
- Sablefish (black cod)
- Tuna steaks
Avoid the following fish:
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
- Ahi tuna
- Bigeye tuna
Seaweed and algae–contain DHA and EPA
Nuts, seeds, and their oils–contain ALA
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
For children and adults who do not like eating fish, an omega-3 fish oil supplement is recommended. For vegetarians and vegans, an algae DHA is best. We strongly recommend an algae DHA supplement for vegans and vegetarians as it is very hard to attain DHA/EPA any other way. Just like with food sources, it is important to choose a high-quality supplement that uses fish lower in mercury, such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and salmon.
Omega 3 DHA + Vitamin D3
DHA is an essential fatty acid needed for the growth and development of both the brain and retinas. Adequate intake during pregnancy and early life help to support proper cognition and eyesight.
Vitamin D3 is needed for the development of bones, teeth, and muscle health. Vitamin D3 also plays a role in immune and heart health.
KidStar’s Omega 3 DHA + Vitamin D3 is a high-DHA formula in a yummy lemon blueberry chewable soft gel. Sourced from small, sustainable fish, our omega-3 also contains EPA and vitamin D3. Formulated for children and teens to help support brain, eye, teeth, and bone health.
Find Omega-3s Here
A high-DHA formula with added vitamin D3 in a yummy lemon blueberry chewable softgel.
Loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids
About the Author
Rhianna Ross, R.H.N., is a registered holistic nutritionist based in Vancouver, BC. Rhianna has more than a decade of experience in the natural health and wellness industry, and currently works at KidStar Nutrients, where she enjoys reviewing and analyzing the latest nutritional research papers, meta-analyses, and journal articles.