Omega 3 Fatty Acids: FAQs

Omega 3 fatty acids pills

We all need  omega 3 fatty acids. They’re essential to health throughout our entire life spans.  During pregnancy through breastfeeding, our need for omega-3s increases even more.  While we are pregnant, omega-3s are a critical building block of the fetal brain, eyes, and nervous system.  After baby is born, omega-3s support brain development and immune function, while also supporting healthy postpartum mood and well being for moms.  Read on to learn more about these nutritional powerhouses.

What are Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids?

Omega-3s are a family of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.  They are essential nutrients for health and development, much like certain vitamins and minerals.  However, we cannot produce them on our own, so we must consume omega-3s through diet or supplementation.

However, omega-3s are drastically deficient in the American food supply. In fact, Americans have the lowest intake of omega-3s of any developed country in the world. It’s no surprise then that most US women are deficient in omega-3s. This explains why doctors recommend that all women take an omega-3 fish oil (or algae oil) supplement – especially when pregnant.

Research indicates that the two most beneficial omega-3s are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Although EPA and DHA naturally occur together and work together in the body, studies show that each fatty acid has unique benefits.  The documented health benefits of EPA and DHA include supporting a healthy heart, brain and cognitive function, joint mobility, eye health, healthy skin and hair, and a healthy immune response.

During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the research-backed benefits of the omega-3s EPA and DHA include supporting the healthy development of the fetal brain, eye, and nervous system, healthy birth weight and gestational length, healthy immune system development, positive mood and well-being in mothers, and attention and focus in infants and children.

What Foods Contain Omega-3 Fatty Acids (EPA + DHA)?

The best sources of EPA and DHA are cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, and herring. Many people are justifiably concerned about mercury and other toxins in fish, especially during pregnancy. For this reason, purified fish oil supplements are often the safest source of EPA and DHA.

A high quality fish oil supplement from a reputable manufacturer delivers the health benefits of EPA and DHA without the risk of toxicity.  In addition, a supplement can ensure that both you and your baby are getting enough EPA and DHA each day as it is a challenge to get enough through food alone.

Many people think that flaxseed and/or flaxseed oil contains omega-3s. But flaxseed contains the shorter-chain omega-3, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is different from the longer-chain EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are the omega-3s that the body needs for optimal health and development.

While it was once though that the human body could convert ALA in flaxseed to the EPA and DHA we need, current research shows that such conversion rarely and inefficiently.  Fish oil or algae oil is a much more reliable source of the EPA and DHA that are so important for health.

Why Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important?

Adequate intake of Omega 3 fatty acids is essential to maintaining the balanced production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins help regulate many important physiological functions including blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission, the inflammatory and allergic responses, the functions of the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, and the production of other hormones.

Depending on the type and amount of fatty acids we consume, certain types of prostaglandins may be produced in large quantities, while others may not be produced at all, and this prostaglandin imbalance can have negative consequences on our health and well-being. The role of omega-3s in producing beneficial prostaglandins may explain why they have been shown to have so many health benefits, including the promoting cardiovascular health, cognitive function, and a healthy immune response. New studies continue to identify more and more omega-3 benefits for a wide range of health issues.

Why Are They Especially Important During Pregnancy?

The omega-3 DHA is generally known as the most important omega-3 for pregnancy because it is a critical building block of the brain, retina, and nervous system.  A growing number of studies in both human infants and animals shows a correlation between omega-3 intake, especially DHA, and cognitive and visual function, and overall brain development.

In humans, brain development undergoes its most rapid and complex growth during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years after birth.  Furthermore, studies show that infants whose mothers supplemented with DHA during pregnancy had healthier immune function.

But it’s not just about baby – it’s about mom’s health, too. The omega-3s EPA and DHA support healthy labor and delivery outcomes and have also been shown to support a healthy mood. Studies have shown that EPA and DHA help support mood and well-being in the postpartum period.

Most U.S. women are deficient in EPA and especially DHA coming into pregnancy, and will get more depleted during pregnancy, as the placenta supplies the fetus with DHA from mom’s tissue.  Depletion persists 9-12 months postpartum and, as you can imagine, gets worse with multiple pregnancies.  This explains why supplementing with omega-3 fish oil or algae oil is so important.

Is it Safe to Take Fish Oil During Pregnancy?

Yes. While fish can contain environmental toxins like mercury that accumulate during its life span, these toxins can be virtually eliminated during the manufacture and processing of fish oil, with the use of high quality raw materials and a technologically advanced refining process utilizing advanced distillation technologies.

Reputable fish oil manufacturer should be able to provide documentation of third-party lab results that show the purity levels of their fish oil, down to the particles per trillion level. Some brands are of higher quality than others; asking for this documentation is a way to ensure that your fish oil supplement is pure and safe.

What Should I look for When Purchasing Fish Oil?

Look for a manufacturer who is transparent – anyone can say they produce quality fish oil but not everyone can prove it.  The only objective proof of fish oil quality and purity are third-party test results that verify adherence to strict standards, so look for a manufacturer that freely offers these test results.

Many organizations have set quality standards for fish oil, including the Norwegian Medicinal Standard, the European Pharmacopoeia Standard, GOED, and the voluntary U.S. standard established by the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s 2006 monograph.

These standards guarantee high-quality fish oil by setting maximum allowances for toxins, heavy metals, and oxidation, so be sure to buy from a manufacturer that can document that their products meet or surpass these standards.

In addition, check to see if any of the company’s products are backed by independent clinical research studies.  This provides evidence of product efficacy.  A simple phone call to the company or a quick review of their website should take care of all of your questions.

How Much Do I Need to Take?

Pregnant women should be sure to take a daily supplement that provides a minimum of 300 mg of DHA at the very least.  The official omega-3 of the American Pregnancy Association is Nordic Naturals’ Prenatal DHA, which provides 480 mg DHA and 205 mg of EPA per serving (2 soft gels).  Below is a quick reference to recommended intake.

ISSFAL (the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids) has established the following recommended minimum dosage chart:

Infants (1–18 months): 0–15 lbs: 32 mg/lb EPA+DHA

Children (1.5–15 yrs): 15 mg/lb EPA+DHA

Adults (15–115 yrs): 500 mg EPA+DHA (with a minimum of 220 mg EPA and 220 mg DHA)

Pregnant and Lactating Women: 300 mg DHA daily

What if I am a Vegetarian?

An omega-3 algae oil supplement can be an excellent vegetarian alternative to fish oil. Be sure to read labels, though, to make sure you choose a product that supplies enough of both EPA and DHA – some algae oils are short on EPA.

Where Can I Learn More about Omega-3 Research on Pregnancy?

The following website offers a great list of omega-3 research studies in a wide variety of categories, including female health and reproduction:

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