Fish oil supplements may prevent premature birth

Fish oil supplements may prevent premature birthAccording to two clinical studies, daily supplementation with the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is found in fish oil, may prevent thousands of premature deliveries – before the 34th week of pregnancy. In addition, both mother and child may have other befits from the active compounds in fish oil.

Both studies, one from the United States, the other from Australia, were randomized, controlled studies of pregnant women who took a daily supplement of DHA (600 mg or 800 mg). The studies revealed a statistically significant reduction of premature deliveries among the fish oil-supplemented women compared with control groups of women who were given a placebo (dummy pills).
Based on their findings, the scientists concluded that DHA supplementation would prevent 106,000 premature deliveries annually in the United States. In Australia, with its smaller population, the supplements would prevent 1,100 premature deliveries per year. The reduction of early birth would especially affect those women who are already at increased risk.

Premature births are tragic and complicated

A pregnancy normally lasts 40 weeks, and children who are born prematurely and before the 34th week often require complicated treatment to survive. Also, they require prolonged and more frequent hospitalization, from the time they are born until their first year of life. All things taken into account, this is a violent and complicated start to life. The earlier a child is born, the greater its risk of serious disabilities, provided the child survives in the first place. In addition, the risk is greater in underdeveloped countries and areas without immediate access to hospitals, medical specialists, and advanced equipment.
According to Susan Carson, professor of nutritional science at the University of Kansas Medical Center and co-author of the study, we still lack effective methods for preventing spontaneous and premature births. However, these recent studies suggest that daily supplementation with DHA may hold promising potential in reducing this rather serious health problem. According to the studies, DHA supplementation may reduce premature deliveries by 1.5 per cent in the United States and 1.3 per cent in Australia, which are demographically similar.

DHA’s functions and widespread, severe deficiencies

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in all cell membranes. The highest concentrations are found in the brain and in the retina of the eye. Cells are protected by their membranes, and the membranes are also responsible for making sure that the right substances enter and exit the cells, thereby helping the cells function properly.
DHA is important for numerous enzyme activities inside the cells. Also, it plays a role in the development of the fetus, especially the brain development. Now, with the above mentioned studies, DHA has even demonstrated a role in preventing premature birth. The unborn child receives DHA from the mother during pregnancy and is therefore influenced by how much, or how little, DHA the mother consumes.
According to the researchers behind the two new studies, American and Australian women generally consume less DHA from their diets than Japanese women and other populations with a tradition of eating more fish. In Denmark, people eat less than the recommended amount of fish.

How do pregnant women get enough DHA?

DHA is primarily found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines, and tuna.
Pregnant women are advised to eat a variety of fish, but health authorities generally advise pregnant women not to limit their intake of large predatory fish, as they contain larger concentrations of mercury and dioxins. In fact, some researchers discourage pregnant women from eating tuna, altogether.
Purified, high-quality fish oil supplements designed for pregnancy are therefore a good way to either supplement your diet or replace oily fish consumption.
However, fish oil supplements do not contain selenium. Normally, fish is a good selenium source, and this nutrient is also very important for fetal development. The effect of the omega-3 fatty acids accumulate over a month or so. During this period, they get embedded in the cell membranes until they reach a steady state.

On the label of a fish oil supplement you can see how much DHA (and EPA) each capsule contains                        

The relation between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

The omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, have a biochemical interaction with omega-6 fatty acids. The balance between them in the cell membranes is important for the many functions of the cell. For instance, EPA and arachidonic acid (omega-6) compete to produce some hormone-like substances called prostaglandins that control inflammation and contractions, and they are also responsible for other processes in the body.

Imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6

Livestock fed on too much omega-6 from corn etc., less fish consumption, ready meals, margarine etc. explain why many of us get far too much omega-6 at the expense of omega-3 – and far too little DHA. The modern diets of Western countries often provide omega-6 and omega-3 in a 10:1 ratio. The optimal (omega-6 to omega-3) ratio is believed to be 4:1 or even less.


L.N. Yelland et al. Predicting the effect of maternal docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplements to reduce early preterm birth in Australia and the United States using results of within country randomized controlled trials. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA). 2016

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