Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
Omega-3 fatty acids form part of the wall of almost every cell in the body. They are especially abundant in the brain and the eyes, which grow very rapidly during the last two months of pregnancy. Infants who receive optimum amounts of these nutrients have better visual and intellectual function and stronger immune systems than those who do not.
A healthy mother transfers large amounts of omega fatty acids across the placenta during the final weeks of pregnancy and continues to provide them to her infant in breastmilk. If a child arrives several weeks too early, the composition of the mother's milk changes in order to yield more fatty acids than are found in the milk of a woman who delivers after a full-term pregnancy. It seems to be nature's way of making sure that every human being has the best chance to survive and contribute to maintenance of the species.
Most infant formulas in the United States do not contain omega-3 fatty acids but there is a trend in that direction in other countries. As more evidence of their value accumulates we can expect that American formula manufacturers will follow suit in the near future.
The omega fatty acids are polyunsaturated, that is, they can accept more hydrogen atoms. At room temperature they are liquid; within the body they make the cell wall more flexible and better able to function.
During the Stone Age pregnant women got good fats from seafood as well as from green leafy vegetables and nuts. They didn't have nearly as much omega-6s as we do. Omega-6 fatty acids are also necessary for normal growth and good health but we take in far too much because our diet is so rich in vegetable oils.
The importance of omega fatty acids extends far beyond infancy. They play large roles in inflammation and the immune response and an imbalance between omega-3s and omega-6s contributes to arthritis, bowel disorders such as Crohn's disease, asthma, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. There appears to be a connection between omega-3 deficiency and depression, including postpartum depression.
The omega fatty acids that a mother contributes to her infant, both before and after delivery, come from her body stores. If her intake before, during and after pregnancy is not adequate, every pregnancy drains more from that supply. That places both the mother and subsequent infants at risk and may increase the possibility of premature delivery.
Cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and tuna have the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). However, larger fish (tuna, sword, shark, and king mackerel) are high on the food chain and may have accumulated relatively large amounts of mercury and other toxins. The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women should avoid them. Vegetable sources include walnuts and leafy green vegetables but the average American woman eats very little of these foods.
Fish oil supplements, usually in the form of capsules, are available wherever vitamins are sold. Their range of quality, purity and cost is enormous. Check the web site, www.consumerlab.com, for information on purity and potency of fish oil products.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.