During pregnancy, you want to do everything you can to help ensure that your baby is as healthy as possible. You take prenatal vitamins and carefully avoid the foods your obstetrician blacklists. Since research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in the support of the brain and nervous system, you take a supplement for that as well. But could you potentially take too much and hurt yourself or your baby?
Sometimes called polyunsaturated acids or PUFAs, omega-3 fatty acids are important for human health and development, but since we do not produce them in our own bodies, we must get them from outside sources -- either food or supplements. Omega-3s are found in oily fish like salmon and tuna as well as in flaxseed, walnuts, and a few other sources. Mediterranean-style diets tend to be higher in omega-3s than the typical American diet, and are thus sometimes touted as being especially heart-healthy.
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Two of the most-studied omega-3s are docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA. DHA helps support the brain and nervous system as well as the eyes, and EPA is beneficial for the immune system and heart and helps reduce inflammation.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
According to an overview of available study data published in the July 2004 issue of "American Family Physician", omega-3s have been shown to "significantly" reduce sudden death in people diagnosed with coronary heart disease. Studies have also shown that omega-3s play a role in lowering blood serum triglyceride levels in patients who have higher-than-recommended lipid levels, and that in people diagnosed with high blood pressure, omega-3s contribute to a small but noticeable lowering of blood pressure. Additionally, omega-3s have been shown to reduce painful symptoms of arthritis. The American Heart Association recommends you eat two servings of oily fish per week, or taking a supplement if your doctor advises you to stay away from fish..
Omega-3s and Pregnancy
Increasing evidence has shown that omega-3s are beneficial to pregnant women and their unborn babies. An overview published in the Fall 2008 issue of "Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology" discussed recent findings. Omega-3s are crucial for the development of the fetal neural system and may serve to reduce the likelihood of infant allergies. Maternal consumption of omega-3s has been shown to be especially beneficial during the final trimester of pregnancy, when it helps with fetal brain and retinal development.
Your baby's health isn't the only reason to increase your omega-3s while you are pregnant -- these fatty acids have been shown to benefit pregnant women as well. A study published by the "Journal of Clinical Psychiatry" in April 2008 showed that omega-3 supplementation can be helpful to pregnant women who have depression. Still other studies have demonstrated that omega-3s can help prevent postpartum mood disorders and reduce the chance of pre-eclampsia.
Negative Effects of Omega-3s
While omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be beneficial to pregnant women, it is difficult for women who are pregnant to consume adequate omega-3s from food sources. This is because pregnant women are directed to limit their intake of omega-3-rich oily fish during pregnancy because of their high mercury levels. Because of the dangers of mercury in oily fish, it is possible for pregnant women to eat "too much" of the fish, although the omega-3s are not the concern. If you are pregnant you will probably be told to take a high-quality omega-3 supplement.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
According to Drugs.com, you are unlikely to be able to "overdose" on the fish oil supplements most pregnant women are prescribed. There is currently no recommended intake level for omega-3s, but the American Heart Association recommends that pregnant women consume no more than 12 ounces of fatty fish per week. If you take a supplement, do not take more than your obstetrician or other health care provider recommends, and never begin taking the supplement without your doctor's permission. When taking fish oil-based supplement, you could experience side effects due to an allergy. If you experience chest pain or heart arrhythmia, fever and chills, or flulike symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately. Some unpleasant but not immediate symptoms you could experience with fish oil supplements include belching, bad breath, back pain, and a rash.
As with any supplement, there is the possibility of interaction with other drugs if you are taking omega-3 supplements. It is very important that your healthcare provider know if you are taking the following types of medication before you begin an omega-3 supplement regimen: blood thinners, estrogens, diuretics or beta-blockers.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- American Family Physician: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- American Heart Association: Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Major Depressive Disorder During Pregnancy: Results From a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-controlled Trial
- Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology: Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy
- Drugs.com: Fish Oil