Omega-3 may reduce risk of premature birth

A study published in the journal Cochrane Review has revealed that women who take higher doses of omega-3 during pregnancy reduce their chances of having a premature birth.

The study builds on earlier Danish research carried out in the 1980s, which found that people in the Faroe Islands, who eat an omega-3-rich fish-based diet, had a lower rate of premature birth compared to women in Denmark, who eat less fish and consequently less omega-3.

Premature birth is classified as any birth that occurs before 37 weeks gestation and is associated with poorer neonatal health. Babies born prematurely are more likely to have respiratory problems, depressed immune systems, gastrointestinal problems, and a range of other difficulties, including long-term complications. Premature children are also more likely to experience slowed development and behavioural problems.

In what could prove to be an important moment of scientific consolidation, the study, which was carried out by the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, found that mothers who take the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) during pregnancy reduce the risk of giving birth before 37 weeks by 11%; more significantly, the risk of giving birth before 34 weeks fell by 42%.

The study followed the births of women in a number of western countries, including England, and looked at both those with normal pregnancy health and those who were statistically at higher risk of birth complications.

Interestingly, although the study delivered very promising results, scientists are still unable to explain precisely what causes premature birth. However, it has been posited that omega-3 and omega-6 play a role in the regulation of the important pregnancy-related hormone prostaglandin.

Most of the women participating in the study took omega-3 supplements, rather than eating an omega-3-rich diet. Unless a person eats a great deal of oily fish such as mackerel or salmon, it is very difficult to get enough omega-3.

The study advised that once they reach 12 weeks pregnancy, women should eat at least 500mg of DHA omega-3 supplements every day. There may be other benefits to doing so; The Independent newspaper has previously reported that “fish oil supplements and probiotic yoghurts during pregnancy may decrease children’s risk of developing allergies.”

However, the NHS currently advises that pregnant women should avoid taking omega-3 fatty acids supplements, saying that it is instead “better to eat fish than take fish oil supplements. Fish is an excellent source of nutrients that are good for your health and your unborn baby’s development.”

We have more information on how nutrition can contribute to a healthy pregnancy here, and Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard has also written an article on your diet and cardiometabolic health after giving birth.