DHA During Pregnancy; Yes or No?

Are Pregnant Women Deficient In Omega-3s?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

dha during pregnancyDo women need DHA during pregnancy?  Most experts agree that omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are essential for fetal development during pregnancy and for brain development through at least the first two years of a child’s life. That’s because DHA is an important component of the myelin sheath that coats and protects our brain neurons.

During the last two trimesters of pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life, their brains are growing and maturing at a remarkable rate. The need for DHA during this critical period is huge, and most of that DHA comes from the mom. That’s why the mom’s intake of DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding is so important.

For example, higher intakes of omega-3s during pregnancy and breastfeeding have been associated with:

  • Decreased maternal depression.
  • Increased birth weight.
  • Reduced risk of preterm birth.
  • Reduction in ADHD symptoms.
  • Reduction in allergies and asthma.
  • Improved developmental and cognitive outcomes such as:
    • Increased visual acuity.
    • Better problem-solving skills.

I do wish to acknowledge that there is still debate in the scientific literature about the strength of some of these associations. However, there is enough cumulative evidence for the beneficial effects of omega-3s especially DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding that virtually all experts agree adequate maternal omega-3 intake is important during this crucial period in a child’s life.

 

How Much DHA During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding Is Needed?

fish oil dha during pregnancyThe National Academies of Science have not yet set a Daily Value for omega-3s. However, a group of experts met in 1999 to recommend adequate dietary intake of omega-3s (Simopoulos et al, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids, 63: 119-121, 2000 ). They concluded that an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids in adults was at least 650 mg/day with at least 440 mg/day of that coming from EPA + DHA (220 mg/day each of EPA and DHA). They further recommended that DHA intake in pregnant and lactating women should be at least 300 mg/day.

However, because of concerns about seafood contamination with heavy metals and PCBs (both of which are neurotoxins), the FDA recommended in 2004 that pregnant and lactating women limit seafood consumption to two servings a week, which amounts to about 200 mg/day of DHA. This has been subsequently adopted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the European Union as the recommended amount of DHA during pregnancy and lactation (Coletta et al, Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 3, 163-171, 2010 ).

How Was The Study Done?

The authors of this study (Nordgren et al, Nutrients, 2017, 9, 197; doi:10.3390/nu9030197 ) utilized a nationwide database called NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). NHANES data are based on an annual survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States, and to track changes over time.

Dietary intake of nutrients is based on two interviewer-administered, 24-hour dietary recalls conducted 3-10 days apart. Omega-3 intake was calculated based on the USDA database of nutrient composition of foods.

The investigators combined NHANES data from the years 2003 to 2012. This included 6478 women of childbearing years (14-45 years old), of which 788 were pregnant at the time of the survey.

Are Pregnant Women Deficient In Omega-3s?

omega3 deficiency in pregnant womenThe results of this study were alarming:

  • Mean EPA + DHA intake was only 89 mg/day with no difference between pregnant and non-pregnant women of childbearing age.
  • This contrasts to the expert committee’s recommendation of at least 440 mg/day for EPA + DHA (220 mg/day each from EPA and DHA).
  • Mean DHA intake was only 66 mg/day in pregnant and 58 mg/day in non-pregnant women of childbearing status.
  • This contrasts to the recommendations of 200 – 300 mg/day for pregnant women.
  • These intakes did not include dietary supplements, but only 1.8% of non-pregnant and 9% of pregnant women in this survey took supplements containing EPA and/or DHA.

The authors concluded “Our results demonstrate that omega-3 fatty acid intake is a concern in pregnant women and women of childbearing age…” They went on to say: ‘Strategies to increase omega-3 fatty acid intake in these populations could have the potential to improve maternal and infant health outcomes.”

What Do Other Studies Show?

This study is not an outlier. In a previous issue  Do Women Get Enough Omega-3 During Pregnancy of “Health Tips From the Professor” I reported on a study showing that 90% of Canadian women were not getting enough DHA in their diet. A similar study in Germany concluded that 97% of middle-aged women had suboptimal omega-3 status (Gellert et al, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2017.01.009 ).

More importantly, these omega-3 deficiencies matter. In another issue DHA Supplements During Pregnancy of “Health Tips From the Professor” I reported on a study showing that DHA supplementation significantly reduced preterm births. Based on that effect alone, the authors concluded that DHA supplementation during pregnancy could save the US healthcare system close to $6 billion/year.

Women do need DHA during pregnancy.

The Bottom Line

  • Optimal intake of omega-3s during pregnancy and breastfeeding is associated with:
    • Decreased maternal depression.
    • Increased birth weight.
    • Reduced risk of preterm birth.
    • Reduction in ADHD symptoms.
    • Reduction in allergies and asthma.
    • Improved developmental and cognitive outcomes such as:
      • Increased visual acuity.
      • Better problem-solving skills.
  • In 1999, a panel of experts met to set standards for omega-3 intake. They recommended:
    • At least 650 mg/day for adults with at least 440 mg/day coming from EPA + DHA (220 mg/day each of EPA and DHA).
    • At least 300 mg/day of DHA for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Because of concerns about seafood contamination with heavy metals and PCBs (both of which are neurotoxins), the FDA reduced the recommendation for pregnant and breastfeeding women to 200 mg/day of DHA. That recommendation has been subsequently adopted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the European Union.
  • A recent study has found:
    • Mean EPA + DHA intake was only 89 mg/day with no difference between pregnant and non-pregnant women of childbearing age.
      • This contrasts to the expert committee’s recommendation of at least 440 mg/day (with 220 mg/day each from EPA and DHA).
    • Mean DHA intake was only 66 mg/day in pregnant and 58 mg/day in non-pregnant women of childbearing status.
      • This contrasts to the recommendations of 200 – 300 mg/day for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
    • These intakes did not include dietary supplements, but only 1.8% of non-pregnant and 9% of pregnant women in this survey took supplements containing EPA and/or DHA.
    • This study is in line with recent studies in Canada and Germany. Clearly pregnant and Breastfeeding women in developed countries like the US are getting suboptimal amounts of omega-3s in their diet.
    • This is alarming because these findings come amidst mounting evidence that optimal omega-3 intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding is important for the health of both mother and child.

     

    These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Prenatal DHA Supplement

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Is taking a prenatal DHA supplement wise for brain health?

There are lots of reasons to think that DHA supplementation may be important for healthy brain development.

  • DHA is a major component of the myelin sheath that coats every neuron in the brain.
  • Just as the plastic coating on copper wire allows it to conduct an electrical current, the myelin sheath allows neurons to conduct nerve impulses from one end of the neuron to the other. In short, the myelin sheath is absolutely essential for brain function.
  • Unlike many of the other components of the myelin sheath, the body cannot make DHA. It must be provided by the diet.
  • Recent studies have suggested that most women in the United States and Canada do not get sufficient amounts of the omega-3s EPA and DHA in their diet.
  • Animal studies show that DHA deficiency during pregnancy interferes with normal brain and eye development.

With all that circumstantial evidence, it would seem obvious that a prenatal DHA supplement would be important for healthy brain development in infants and children.  However, clinical studies have been all over the map.

Some studies have reported that DHA supplementation during pregnancy improves cognition, attention span, behavior or reading skills in both infants and children.  Other studies have shown no effect of DHA supplementation on those parameters.  There is no consensus on this very important question.

Thus, when I saw a recent study titled “Prenatal Supplementation with DHA Improves Attention At 5 Years Of Age: A Randomized Controlled Trial” (U Ramakrishnan et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.101071, 2016), I decided to Investigate.

 

Does Taking a Prenatal DHA Supplement Improve Attention Span?

healthy brains for kidsIn this study 1094 Mexican women were randomly assigned to receive either 400 mg of DHA or a placebo containing corn and soy oil starting in the second trimester of pregnancy (a time at which myelination and brain development begins) until delivery. Of the women enrolled in the study, 973 of them gave birth to healthy babies.

The investigators were able to follow up with 797 (82%) of those children at age 5 and conducted tests to measure overall cognitive function, behavior, and attention span.

  • There were no differences in overall cognitive development or behavior between the two groups.
  • The children from mothers who supplemented with DHA performed significantly better in tests of attention span. They were much less likely to be distracted by external stimuli than the children from mothers not supplementing with DHA.
  • In short, this study suggested that supplementation with DHA during pregnancy produced children who were less likely to suffer from attention deficit disorders at age 5.

This study had a number of strengths:

  • It was a fairly large study (797 children).
  • Supplementation was with pure DHA rather than with a mixture of EPA, DHA, and other omega-3 fatty acids.
  • The population was from an urban area of Mexico where omega-3 intake is generally low, so it was likely that many of the women were DHA-deficient at the beginning of the study.

However, it also had some glaring weaknesses:

  • The DHA status of the women was not measured either at baseline or after supplementation.
  • The quality of the child’s learning environment was not measured.

In short, the study was neither better or worse than the many other published studies.

 

Why Is There So Much Confusion?

To try and clear up the confusion I have also analyzed many of the other published studies in this field. There were things not to like about every study, but there was no obvious reason why some studies showed a positive effect of DHA supplementation and others failed to see any benefit. This is not unusual for human nutrition clinical studies, but it is frustrating.

However, when you look at the totality of the studies in this field there is one obvious reason why there is so much confusion. There is no uniformity in experimental design. No two studies are alike.

The published studies differ in:

  • The composition of omega-3s. Some studies are done with pure DHA. Others with mixtures of EPA and DHA and with varying ratios of EPA to DHA.
  • The amount of DHA. Studies range from 100 mg/day to 800 mg/day.
  • When the DHA is given. Some studies give the DHA to the pregnant mothers. Others give DHA to infants or to children of various ages.

Even worse, most of the published studies to date have not measured omega-3 status prior to supplementation, nor have they documented an improvement in omega-3 status with supplementation. Obviously, DHA supplementation is most likely to be beneficial for individuals who were DHA-deficient at the beginning of the study.

Until there is some uniformity in experimental design and DHA status is routinely measured, it is likely that the confusion will continue and this important question will remain unanswered.

 

  Should Pregnant Women Take a Prenatal DHA Supplement?

prenatal dha supplementIf we were to assume that most American women were getting enough omega-3s in their diet, and the consequences of DHA deficiency were relatively minor, this would be merely an academic discussion. We could afford to wait years until scientists were able to come to a consensus.

However, neither of those assumptions are true:

  • One recent study reported that the United States and Canada rated last in the world with respect to omega-3 intake.
  • If any of the reported consequences (short attention span, cognitive deficits, and behavioral problems) of DHA-deficiency during pregnancy and childhood are true and they are preventable with DHA supplementation, this information is of vital importance to every woman during her child bearing years.

In short, inadequate DHA intake is so widespread and the possible consequences of DHA deficiency during pregnancy are so important that, in my opinion, a prenatal DHA supplement only makes sense. Pregnant women can’t afford to wait until we are absolutely sure that DHA supplementation is essential.

The only caveat to this recommendation is to make sure that the DHA you are getting is pure. Our oceans are increasingly polluted. Many fish and some fish oil supplements are contaminated with heavy metals and/or PCBs. Only use omega-3 and/or DHA supplements from manufacturers that use very stringent quality controls to assure their products are pure.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study has reported that DHA supplementation during pregnancy improves attention span in children at age 5.
  • Unfortunately, there is no consensus in this field. Some studies have come to similar conclusions while others have seen no effect of DHA supplementation during pregnancy.
  • If we were to assume that omega-3 deficiency was rare in this country and the consequences of DHA deficiency during pregnancy were inconsequential, this would be an academic discussion. Pregnant women could wait for scientists to reach consensus before deciding whether or not to supplement with DHA. However, neither of those studies are true.
  • Studies show that most women in the US and Canada do not get adequate omega-3s during pregnancy.
  • If any of the reported consequences of DHA deficiency during pregnancy are true and they are preventable with DHA supplementation, this information is of vital importance to every woman during her pregnancy.
  • In short, inadequate DHA intake is so widespread and the possible consequences of DHA deficiency during pregnancy are so important that, in my opinion, DHA supplementation during pregnancy only makes sense. Pregnant women can’t afford to wait until we are absolutely sure that DHA supplementation is essential.
  • The only caveat to this recommendation is to make sure that the DHA you are getting is pure. Our oceans are increasingly polluted. Many fish and some fish oil supplements are contaminated with heavy metals and/or PCBs. Only use omega-3 and/or DHA supplements from manufacturers that use very stringent quality controls to assure their products are pure.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

DHA Supplements During Pregnancy

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

dha supplementation saves moneyA recent study has estimated that taking DHA supplements during pregnancy, specifically in the last two trimesters, could save the US healthcare system close to $6 billion/year (Shireman et al, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 111: 8-10, 2016) .

Another study has come to similar conclusion in Australia (Ahmed et al, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 102-103: 5-11, 2015) .

When you have two well done studies by different investigators in different countries that come to the same conclusion, it is time to take the studies seriously and start to ask some important questions. For example:

  • Are these studies true?
  • Should we change our public health recommendations during pregnancy?
  • Is this just a public health issue, or does it affect you personally?

The Value of DHA Supplements During Pregnancy

dha supplements during pregnancyThe US study was called “Kansas University DHA Outcomes Study” (KUDOS). It studied health outcomes for 197 pregnant moms who gave birth to a single baby at the Kansas University Hospital between 2006 and 2010. The moms came from the Kansas City metropolitan area and consisted of 42% moms who self-identified as Black and 58% as other races.

The women were randomly assigned to consume 3 capsules per day containing either 600 mg DHA or a placebo containing corn and soybean oil during their second and third trimesters (starting around 14.5 weeks after gestation). Multiple pregnancy outcomes were assessed, but the main focus was on early preterm birth (infants born before 34 week’s gestation). That’s because a recent meta-analysis has reported that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy reduces early preterm births by 58% (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016) .

The results of the KUDOS study were:

  • Taking DHA supplements during pregnancy, specifically in the last two trimesters, reduced early preterm birth from 4.8% to 0.6%.
  • DHA supplementation reduced average hospital costs per infant born in the Kansas Medical Center by $1678. This was primarily because of a significant reduction in the average length of time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit because of the reduction in early preterm births.
  • When the cost of supplementation was taken into account, there was a 10-fold return in hospital cost savings for every dollar spent on supplementation.
  • When the authors extrapolated this analysis to the 4 million live births in the US each year, they estimated a potential savings of $6.6 billion.
  • This corresponds to a net savings of $5.94 billion to the US health care system if you take into account the cost of providing all pregnant women in the US with 600 mg of DHA/day during the last two trimesters of pregnancy.

The authors of the KUDOS study concluded “…a public health policy to increase DHA intake during pregnancy could result in significant cost savings to the health care system in our country”.

Are These Studies True?

truthTruth in science is always elusive. It requires many years of research and multiple clinical studies. However, two well done studies in two different countries have concluded that taking DHA supplements during pregnancy significantly reduces health care costs. In addition, a recent meta-analysis of 6 published clinical studies (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016) has concluded that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy reduces early preterm births by 58%.

These are all small studies, but their results are remarkably consistent. If you were to generalize the conclusions of all these studies into a statement saying “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy significantly reduces health care costs”, there is a good probability that statement would be true. However:

  • The exact cost savings is uncertain.
  • The source of omega-3s (DHA, EPA, or a mixture of the two) is uncertain.
  • The amount of omega-3 fatty acids needed to reduce early preterm births is uncertain.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Cost Savings of Using DHA Supplements During Pregnancy

  • On the minus side, 42% of the women in the KUDOS study were Black, while the national average is 16%. That is significant because the rate of early preterm births is twice as high for black women as it is for White and Asian women. If the results of the KUDOD study were extrapolated to the percentage of Black women in the US population, the cost savings to the US health care system would only be around $4 billion – still a pretty substantial number!
  • On the plus side, the initial hospital costs associated with early preterm birth are just the tip of the iceberg. There are also considerable long-term expenses for special education services associated with disabling conditions common with premature infants.  A recent study (Mangham et al, Pediatrics 123: e312-e327, 2009) calculated the costs of preterm birth in the UK from birth to 18 years of age and came up with an estimate of $4.567 billion in US dollars. If we assume that omega-3 supplementation results in a 58% decrease in early preterm birth (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016) and extrapolate that cost savings to the US population, the total cost savings would be $13.2 billion. Now we’re talking real money!

Source of Omega-3s:

  • DHA has been the focus of the two most recent studies on cost savings because of the role of DHA in nerve, brain and visual development, but EPA is also likely to be important in neonatal development. In addition, the efficiency of conversion of EPA to DHA is very high.
  • In fact, when we look at the individual studies included in the meta-analysis described above (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016), DHA, EPA, and EPA+DHA supplementation all gave comparable reductions in early preterm births.

Amount of Omega-3s:

  • While the 600 mg/day used in the KUDOS study is probably a good starting point, the individual studies in the meta-analysis used a wide range of dose. All of them seemed to have at least some efficacy in reducing early preterm births. Obviously, more studies are needed to determine the optimal dose.

What Does This Mean For You?

All this talk about reducing health care costs may seem esoteric. You may be wondering “What does this have to do with me?”

  • Don’t be lulled to complacency by the estimated cost savings of $1678/birth mentioned above. That is the average costs of all births. Early preterm births represent only 4.78% of all the births in the study. If you give birth to a baby earlier than 34 weeks of gestation, there is a high probability your infant will end up in the neonatal intensive care unit and your health care costs will be orders of magnitude more than $1678. How that affects your wallet will depend on your insurance plan.
  • Early preterm birth is associated with increased risk of global and selective cognitive defects. These can range from relatively mild impairment of IQ, memory, executive function, non-verbal skills, and motor skills to much more serious conditions like cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and disorders of psychological development. The possibility of avoiding those kinds of defects in your child is priceless.

 

The Bottom Line

  • Recent studies in the US and Australia have shown that taking 600 mg of DHA supplements during pregnancy during the last two trimesters  significantly reduces early preterm births (infants born before 34 weeks gestation) resulting in an estimated savings to the US health care system of around $6 billion/year.
  • Other studies suggest that supplementation with EPA and EPA+DHA mixtures give similar results.
  • Discussions of cost savings to the US healthcare system sound somewhat esoteric. However, if you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, there are real benefits to you associated with reducing the risk of early preterm birth. That is because:
  • The costs associated with early preterm births are substantial. How much they affect your wallet will depend on your health insurance policy.
  • Early preterm births are associated with a variety of global and selective cognitive defects (for details, read the article above). The possibility of avoiding those kinds of defects in your child is priceless.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.