Whether you and your partner are just embarking on your conception journey, or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, these times are your greatest opportunity to influence not only your own health, but your (future) child’s health.
One of the most critical things to consider for both you and your baby are omega-3 fatty acids. According to this study, approximately 80% of Australians are not meeting the recommended intakes of omega 3’s for optimal health and 90% of childbearing women are not meeting the recommendations during pregnancy and lactation.
What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated, meaning that they have several double bonds in the chemical structure. The three most important types are;
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – found in grass-fed beef and plant sources such as nuts and seeds
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – found in fatty fish and algae
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – found in fatty fish and algae
We can’t produce them on our own, so we must get them from our diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are needed for optimal function of the human body, and they also provide numerous powerful health benefits (which will be discussed below in more detail). Common foods that are a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, fish oil, cod liver oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, inca inchi oil and walnuts, to name a few. The omega 3’s derived from fish are more potent than those derived from plant sources because they’re taken up directly into the cell membranes. Before plant derived omega 3’s can be used by the body, they have to be converted into the form found in fish (EPA and DHA). Generally, it’s assumed that somewhere between 5-15% of ALA is eventually converted to the longer chain omega 3’s.
Preconception Benefits of Omega 3’s
The preconception period offers the best opportunity to optimise the nutritional status and health of both parents, which will increase the chances of a healthy conception. DHA is also the precursor to an important compound that protects the neurons from oxidative stress (where the body is unable to detoxify an overproduction of free radicals, atoms that can damage the cells in the body). Therefore, it is advised that the mother consumes adequate amounts of essential fatty acids prior to conception.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to:
- Aid in hormonal regulation
- Increase and promote healthy cervical mucus production
- Promote regular ovulation
- Decreases inflammatory fertility issues such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts
- Reduce painful menstruation
- Improve the quality of the uterus by increasing the blood flow to the reproductive organs
- Improve egg quality
- Support proper sperm production and improve sperm motility.
The body stores omega-3’s for several weeks, so getting enough regularly will ensure that you have adequate levels when you do become pregnant.
Pregnancy Benefits of Consuming Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3’s contain a powerhouse of nutrients to ensure that your baby will develop properly and reach its highest potential. Did you know that our brains are made up of about 60% fat? It makes sense that when you are trying to grow a baby and encourage proper brain development that you would need to provide the necessary tools. So, the mother is advised to eat healthy fats like omega 3’s to provide her growing baby with the fats it needs to build a healthy brain. The rapidly developing foetus has a high need for omega-3 fatty acids.The baby actually hoards DHA from the mother and incorporates it into its brain at 10x the rate at which it can synthesise it. It has been scientifically proven that the more omega 3’s that you have inside your brain, the better the neurons can communicate. Not having enough can result in poor brain function and problems, like ADHD or autism.
Omega-3 fats, particularly DHA, are also critical for central nervous system development, which begins only 21 – 28 days after conception. At 40 days after conception brain waves are recordable. Higher intake of omega-3’s during pregnancy has also been found to reduce the risk of postnatal depression and is also associated with reduced risk of pre-term delivery. Omega 3’s are also needed for eye development, for placental growth and to support the mother’s mammary gland and uterine growth.
Omega 3 Consumption During Breastfeeding
The number one source of omega-3 fatty acids as well as other important nutrients for the baby is the mother’s milk. However, during the breastfeeding process, the mother’s own storage of omega-3’s tends to diminish. With women that have (and breastfeed) more than one child, the mother’s omega-3 stores dwindle down, which is why the younger siblings can sometimes exhibit behavioural problems. This is also why the mother may experience post-natal depression, as mentioned above. Other studies indicate that omega-3’s can benefit the baby’s immune system development, with a reduction in the incidence of IgE (allergic) diseases in the infant’s first year of life.
So all-in-all, omega-3’s can be vital to ensure the best brain development for the baby, as well as the mental state of the mother. While the research above illustrates the importance omega-3’s should have in our diet, most women don’t get enough either before, during or after pregnancy.
Now the question is, how can we get more omega-3 fatty acids into our diet?
3 Food Rich Sources of Omega 3’s
If you consume cold-water, wild-caught, fatty fish like salmon and sardines at least 4 times per week, you probably don’t need to take a supplement. It is important, however, that the fish you eat be wild-caught and not farmed, as farmed fish can be full of pesticides, contaminants, artificial colouring, and other chemicals that are bad for your health. The best food sources of omega-3’s are salmon, sardines, anchovies, and herring, as they contain fatty acids in the forms of DHA and ELA. ALA fats can be found in grass-fed beef and plant sources like flax seeds and walnuts.
At this point you may be wondering what you can do about the contaminants and pollutants in the fish and seafood you consume, especially if you’re pregnant. If you consume fresh herbs like coriander, thyme, basil and rosemary, as well as salad greens, kale, spinach, broccoli and/or asparagus with your fish, then the power of these foods will help to draw out any toxins. You can also read more about this process here.
Cod Liver Oil
Cod liver oil has been used for hundreds of years in traditional cultures and was something that every mother and grandmother swore by for immune support and brain development. Cod liver oil is a nutritional supplement derived from the liver of cod fish. As with most fish oils, it has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The benefits of cod liver oil during pregnancy are proven – see these studies:
- Use of Cod Liver Oil During Pregnancy Associated With Lower Risk of Type I Diabetes in the Offspring
- Maternal Supplementation With Very-Long-Chain n-3 Fatty Acids During Pregnancy and Lactation Augments Children’s IQ at 4 Years of Age
- Relationship Between Dietary Intake of Cod Liver Oil in Early Pregnancy and Birthweight
Cod liver oil is also incredibly rich in the fat soluble vitamins A & D. Vitamin D is crucial for healthy fertility and pregnancy, and studies show that up to 50% of women are deficient in it. Vitamin D promotes proper development of the bones, especially during the 3rd trimester when the foetal skeleton begins to grow rapidly. Vitamin A is necessary for proper development of the retina and for vision, immune function, reproductive health, embryonic development, skin and cellular health, antioxidant activity and much more. Some studies have shown that consuming too much vitamin A may cause birth defects. This only happens with synthetic forms of water-soluble forms of vitamin A, when consumed in very high amounts. High quality cod liver oil contains fat-soluble vitamin A in its natural form. When vitamin A is taken as a whole food source like it is in cod liver oil, it is not toxic to developing babies because when vitamin A is combined with vitamin D (like in cod liver oil), it has been shown that the vitamin D protects the body from vitamin A toxicity. This allows the human body to withstand higher levels of vitamin A. You can read more here and here.
So how much cod liver oil should you consume? I always suggest you follow recommended guidelines on the product label or chat to your chosen health care practitioner for individualised advice.
If you’re curious why I didn’t mention fish oil, I would recommend you read this blog for more information.
Inca Inchi Oil
If you’re vegan, vegetarian or even just concerned about the sustainability issues of the fish oil industry, Inca Inchi Oil is a great alternative. It’s a vegan, vegetarian, sustainable, ethical plant-based alternative to fish oil and a natural source of omega 3-6-9. It can be added to smoothies, salads, pesto, mayonnaise, as well as used on your skin. It is not to be heated. You can read more about the benefits of Inca Inchi Oil here.
If you’re currently breastfeeding, pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant and would like additional individualised dietary advice, please contact your healthcare professional.