Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Not So Fishy - Pregnancy and Fish Oil

Pregnancy is a tumultuous time in any woman's life. Between the raging hormones and the drastic changes going on in her body, each pregnant woman is faced with concerns and fears from all sides. There are new physical limitations, stricter dietary guidelines, and the ever lingering question of what is best for the baby.

In all of that, most women just want to stay healthy: for themselves and for their babies. This is a worthy goal, and can be accomplished far easier thanks to modern nutritional facts and supplements. While most women may be good at trying to eat healthy and may even take their prenatal vitamin on a daily basis, one easy thing all pregnant women could be doing for themselves and their babies is taking fish oil.

An Overview of Fish Oil

Like the name suggests, fish oil is found naturally in fish and other seafood. What is referred to as fish oil is actually an extract from the oily tissues of some fish. Most physicians and nutritionists recommend including fish oil as part of a healthy and balanced diet due to its unique health properties, which includes the presence of certain omega 3 fatty acids. While there are many omega 3 fatty acids found naturally in a variety of foods, fish oil in particular has the acids DHA and EPA. These two unique acids have been found to have specific health benefits, from enhanced brain development to anti-inflammatory properties.

While omega 3 is most commonly consumed through fish, evidence shows that fish do not create the omega 3 fatty acids themselves. To the contrary, fish oil is rich in fatty acids due to the diet of the fish, which is based heavily on microalgae. Therefore, not all fish are known to provide high doses of these acids, but rather fish like herring and sardines, which eat the algae as a part of their diet, are often good sources for it. Other predatory fish, such as lake trout or salmon, may also be rich in these omega 3 fatty acids thanks to the fish they themselves consume.

Though fish has been a staple of healthy diets for centuries, it is only thanks to modern science that we understand the true benefits of fish oil. Fish oil first became recognized for its health properties in relationship to the heart. Since the omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil contain anti-coagulants, they have been shown to improve blood flow, which can help patients who suffer from high blood pressure or heart disease. This link is so strong that the American Heart Association even includes fish oil as part of its guidelines to improve heart health, especially amongst those who are already at risk for or suffering from heart disease.

In addition to heart health, omega 3 has grown in popularity for its ability to improve brain function. According to a study at UCLA, the omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil can help the brain produce plaque-fighting proteins. People who suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer's have been documented to be lacking these proteins. Therefore, the UCLA study suggests that by taking fish oil, individuals can increase these proteins in their brain, thereby preventing the blockages that lead to memory loss during the onset of Alzheimer's. Other studies from around the world have examined fish oil's impact on other mental disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, many of which have suggested positive results for those patients who include fish oil as part of their diet.

In general, many health professionals have accepted and endorsed fish oil as a part of a healthy lifestyle. In recent years, much work has been done to extract fish oil for research as well as consumption. This has led to the development of various fish oil supplements, which have revolutionized the way some people approach incorporating fish oil into their diets. Through the creation of these supplements, it is possible to carefully monitor the intake of fish oil, without some of the concerns related to eating fish.

Fish Oil and the Pregnant Woman

While fish oil is helpful for people of all ages and genders, there are some particular benefits for pregnant women. Since the developing baby takes so many resources from the mother's body, pregnant women are at risk for a number of disorders and nutritional losses, which can sometimes have a negative health impact in the long term. Omega 3 in particular can help guard against brain loss during pregnancy. Many pregnant women feel light-headed and forgetful while they are with child, which is due mostly to the redirection of blood flow being concentrated in the womb. This redirection of resources can leave organs like the brain vulnerable, but the omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil can help supplement the body's natural reserves to keep pregnant women strong in mind and body.

Even beyond that, omega 3 has been linked to other health benefits during pregnancy. According to some preliminary studies, women with high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in their diets are less likely to suffer from complications such as pre-eclampsia, pre-term labor, and postpartum depression. In the long term, some studies even suggest that these women are less likely to develop breast cancer, thanks to the nutritional properties of omega 3 fatty acids.

Along with these perks, fish oil during pregnancy can simply improve mood and lessen overall fatigue. Given the physical and emotional stress during pregnancy, something that can heighten blood flow and ease tensions can be an essential factor for a healthy and happy pregnancy. While a woman's body is so focused on the developing baby, omega 3 provides an extra boost to support the mother's health and well being.

With these benefits, it is remarkable that only about two percent of pregnant women consume the recommended amounts of Omega 3 each day. Of the remaining women, most do not even come close to the daily recommendations. Though prenatal care has made huge improvements in recent years, there is still clearly much work to be done in educating women about the value of omega 3 fatty acids it provides.

Fish Oil and the Fetus

While there are clearly benefits for the mother, the strongest case for making sure a pregnant woman adopts a diet rich with fish oil is based on the fetus' health. The formation of a baby is an intricate and detailed process. All the factors must work together to make each body part and every internal working of a newborn's small body. To do this, the mother's body must provide nutrients to give the fetus the nutrients and energy it needs to grow and form. These nutrients range from calcium to vitamin A to folic acid. Each nutrient helps specific developments along.

When it comes to omega 3 fatty acids, the benefits are most notable in brain and eye development. By the time a newborn finally makes its debut in the world, almost seventy percent of the baby's brain is composed of DHA and EPA, the two omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil. This percentage can be more or less, depending on the amount of fish oil in the mother's pregnancy diet. Babies with high percentages are shown to have strong brain development, with some evidence by a study out of Harvard Medical School suggesting a higher overall intelligence by the age of six months.

A newborn's retina is also composed of these fatty acids, and the growing fetus relies heavily on the omega 3 fatty acids of fish oil to have healthy eyesight development. Solid retina formation is a key factor in good eyesight later on, so fetuses who receive higher portions of these acids are more likely to have improved eyesight after birth.

Other proposed benefits relate to the nervous system. The medical community has generally embraced omega 3 fatty acids as a critical player in the development of the nervous system, helping maintain the necessary delicate balance, which is especially important while the fetus undergoes such dramatic growth in the womb.

These strong links to the brain and nervous system may also explain why children who receive the proper amounts of omega 3 prior to being born have fewer behavior and sleep problems as they grow. On top of that, the latest research may indicate an improved hand-eye coordination and a decreased risk of verbal setbacks for toddlers whose mothers ate a diet rich with omega 3 during pregnancy.

Some preliminary data also indicates that fish oil may be associated with fewer allergies. This news could be a significant breakthrough, especially since food allergies among young children has steadily been on the rise in recent years. Yet, according to one study published in Acta Paediatrica, children who have had sufficient amounts of fish oil in their diet are less likely to have such allergies by as much as thirteen percent, possibly because of the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil, which can ease the swelling and airway constriction often associated with dangerous food allergies. These benefits were also noted to lessen the prevalence of disorders such as eczema, which the same study found to be reduced by sixteen percent among babies whose mothers had sufficient omega 3 fatty acids in their diets.

Overall, fish oil as part of a pregnancy diet aids in development across the board, reducing the risks for many ailments and developmental lapses. Babies whose mothers consumed proper dosages of fish oil have even been shown to have a higher birth weight overall, as shown by a study conducted at the University of Bristol in England.

It is plain to see that the health benefits are numerous, and, moreover, that they are still being discovered. Children need omega 3 fatty acids for strong development, and those who receive sufficient amounts during gestation are likely to excel physically and mentally, thanks to the strong nutritional factors associated with fish oil. With all of these benefits, most pregnant women are hard pressed not to consider adding more fish oil to their diet in order to give their babies the best chance they can.

Fish Oil After Birth

Though many women pay extra attention to their health during pregnancy, giving birth does not mean that neglecting fish oil is suddenly a good idea. To the contrary, fish oil can be a part of any healthy diet, due to its numerous health benefits. For women who are considering breastfeeding, maintaining a high intake of fish oil may continue to support the health of both mother and baby.

As babies begin to develop and start eating solid foods, fish oil will once again become a major dietary issue. Many baby food companies are now taking note of how important fish oil can be for a developing infant, and now have lines of food and cereal that incorporate the right amounts of fish oil to help babies continue to develop strong minds and bodies. It is a good idea for mothers to be aware of this, in order to ensure that their babies have a strong and balanced diet, rich in fish oil, which is especially important during this pivotal developmental time.

Incorporating Fish Oil into a Pregnancy Diet

Obviously, with this many documented health benefits, eating foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids is an important step for any pregnant mother. The trick is to find foods and supplements that are high in DHA and EPA, two specific omega 3 fatty acids that have been shown to have powerful positive effects on the human body. Because of this, pregnant women do need to be aware that not all omega 3 fatty acids are the same, and while they all have certain health benefits, it is foods rich in DHA and EPA that carry the extra nutritional punch.

The only effective way of attaining sufficient dosages of DHA and EPA is through fish such as salmon or halibut. While other foods, such as flaxseed oil and walnuts, are also noted for their omega 3 fatty acids, the acids they contain are not as powerful or concentrated as fish oil.

However, for some women, eating fish on a daily basis or even several times a week can be a difficult prospect, especially for those who live further inland. Fish can be expensive, making it difficult to fit into a tight budget. More than that, fish can be an acquired taste for some, and other women may discover that their heightened pregnancy taste buds cannot handle the powerful taste of this select type of fish. Whatever the case may be, for those who cannot or do not wish to eat fish regularly, it is still important to get the daily suggestion for omega 3 fatty acids for both themselves and their baby.

Even for women who do enjoy fish regularly, there are some dangers associated with fish for pregnant women to keep in mind. In addition to omega 3 fatty acids, fish unfortunately can also be high in mercury and can even contain other harmful toxins. Because of this, many doctors recommend that pregnant women eat fish with some moderation, in order to avoid too much mercury in their diet, which can be harmful to the development of the fetus.

Because of these risks, more pregnant women are turning to fish oil supplements. These supplements have been packaged with concentrated doses of fish oil, bearing all the omega 3 fatty acids needed for the day in one easy to swallow pill. In this way, supplements are a great option, since they are easy to keep track of and simple to keep on hand. By taking fish oil supplements, a pregnant woman never has to worry about whether or not she is getting enough. She just has to take their pill and rest easy that she is doing everything she can for her baby.

A few key things to look for in supplements is the dosage and that the pill is guaranteed to be mercury-free and thoroughly purified. While most omega 3 supplements on the market have been shown to be low in mercury, there is little testing to examine the amount of toxins they may contain, so it is important to select the right pill, not only for the dosage, but for the quality of the fish being used. These supplements are easy to find at some supermarkets or nutrition stores. Many women find that ordering such supplements online is a hassle-free and affordable solution, especially when purchases are made in bulk.

However, it is wise to check the authenticity of the pills and to be sure to purchase from a reputable dealer. In general, all women should discuss the decision with their doctor, especially while pregnant.


Years of medical research have shown the positive impact fish oil can have on overall health. In recent years, these studies have increasingly documented the benefits that extend to pregnant women and their fetuses. Pregnant women can benefit from the improved blood flow and the extra heart, mind, and nervous system benefits, which can be especially important because of how vulnerable a pregnant woman's body can become during pregnancy. The positive impact extends far beyond the woman herself, and is clearly evident in the developing fetus, which uses the omega 3 fatty acids for brain, eye, and nervous system development.

In addition to these important benefits during pregnancy, the latest research has also shown a link between fish oil during pregnancy and long term health for mother and baby. With a reduction in asthma and food allergies and a possible overall boost in intelligence, it is hard not to be swayed by the overwhelming evidence.

However, as with any supplement, there are certain risks associated with it, which is why it is important to be well informed and consult a doctor, especially during pregnancy. While many experts recommended certain dosages of omega 3 during pregnancy, it is imperative that women are certain of the quality of that source due to risks of mercury and other toxins that can be present in fish oil as well.

Because pregnancy is a time of change and growth, it is sometimes the first time that some women really look at their health habits and consider what they are ingesting into their bodies. Due to the nature of fish oil, it is definitely something all women should consider for their own health as well as their babies', during pregnancy and beyond.

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