Preterm Birth Prevention: Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Are you trying to conceive or already pregnant? Listen up! Your prenatal and your diet may not be providing you with enough of a critical type of fat.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
You’ve probably heard about Omega-3’s before and their relationship to heart health, but did you know that they also may play an important role in preventing preterm birth and other pregnancy complications? Let’s dive in and talk about these important fatty acids, how they may prevent preterm birth, and how to make sure you are getting enough.
What is Preterm Birth?
A preterm birth is a birth that occurs before 37 weeks. These births can happen spontaneously, or as part of a medical intervention for pregnancy complications. They can put the infant and the mother at high risk for complications after delivery. In the case of spontaneous preterm births, the inflammatory process that initiates labor starts too soon. Therefore, it would make sense that anti-inflammatory nutrients would help slow this process, preventing preterm labor. Omega-3 fats, primarily docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are known for their incredible anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to produce compounds to control the inflammatory response in uterus and prevent pre-term birth.
A recent study published earlier this month in EBioMedicine adds to the current body of evidence for the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and prevention of preterm births.
The total study population included 91,661 women enrolled in the Danish National Birth Cohort. Researchers identified 376 women who had had preterm birth from this large study group. The plasma concentrations of EPA and DHA were measured during the first and second trimesters of these pregnancies, which had ended in early delivery.
In this study, researchers found that women who had the lowest concentrations of omega-3s in their plasma had a 10 times higher risk of having a preterm birth compared to women with the highest levels. To get a better picture of the difference in concentration, women with the lowest concentrations had 1.6% or lower of DHA and EPA in their plasma and the highest had 1.8% or higher. Such a small difference in these critical fats made a huge difference in pregnancy outcomes.
Previous studies have pointed to a relationship between DHA and EPA consumption and the reduction of preterm birth. A review published in 2016 found that supplementation with DHA and EPA reduced risk of early preterm birth (<34 weeks) by 58% and of any preterm birth (<37 weeks) by 17%. In a 2007 study, researchers found that supplementation of fish oil in high-risk pregnant women with previous pregnancy complications reduced risk of preterm delivery in women who ate just 4 to 6 ounces of fish per week.
How to Get Enough Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, are found in tuna, cod, salmon, anchovies, and other cold-water fish. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend pregnant women to eat 8 to 12oz of seafood per week to meet their needs for these omega-3 fatty acids. If taking fish oil supplements, the World Health Organization recommends searching for a refined fish oil to reduce consumption of pesticides or other residues. Look for brands that provide independent testing reports of contaminants and avoid any company that either doesn’t do 3rd party independent testing, or, won’t provide the results of the testing. Nordic Naturals is one over the counter brand that met these standards*
Plant-based Omega-3 Fatty Acids Sources & Supplementing
Individuals who do not eat fish or take fish oil can get omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based sources including walnuts, flaxseed, or chia. But, it is important to note that plant-based sources must first be converted into EPA or DHA. This conversion is unfortunately quite inefficient, making fish the preferable source. Some prenatal vitamins may also contain DHA and EPA, though concentration of these fatty acids may vary by brand – check the label before you purchase them and know that often, a prenatal will not/cannot contain enough and so it will need to be taken as a separate supplement. In fact, I’m always suspect of prenatals that say they contain DHA but are gummies or just a small capsule because it’s just not possible to fit enough omega-3 fatty acids (plant based or not) into such a small dose. It’s usually best to supplement separately and focus on dietary sources.
Overall, there is an increasing body of research showing that incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into your prenatal routine can significantly reduce risk for preterm birth and help you achieve a healthy pregnancy. If you choose a supplement wisely, the risk to taking omega-3 fatty acids is very minimal which makes me wonder, why aren’t omega-3 fatty acids recommended as the standard of care?
*Reviewed at the time of publication
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