Omega-3 Fatty Acids Critical To Infants, Mothers

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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More research shows that polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), mainly the omega-3s found in fish, benefit maternal and infant health, immune function and total parenteral nutrition (TPN). The June 2008 Fats of Life and PUFA Newsletter electronic publications summarize new findings in these areas.

One study showed that providing greater amounts of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 PUFA, and arachidonic acid, an omega-6 PUFA, to preterm infants with very low birth weights resulted in improved cognition. Preterm infant formulas in the U.S. provide less of these fatty acids than the infant would receive had it remained in the womb.

"This study provides additional evidence that the fatty acids an infant receives from the mother during pregnancy are critically important for brain development," said Editor Joyce Nettleton, D.Sc. "If these findings are confirmed, they suggest that the long-chain PUFA content of preterm infant formula may need to be increased."

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Studies on TPN, intravenous feeding for the seriously ill, also question current U.S. regulations. In infants with severe liver disease and short bowel syndrome, a fish oil-based preparation significantly reversed the disease more quickly and more often compared with the standard soybean oil preparation. In the U.S., fish oil TPN must be imported from Europe and is approved only under compassionate circumstances.

"Fish oil-based TPN saves lives and hastens the recovery of infants with short bowel syndrome," Nettleton said. "Evidence from these studies may help ease U.S. regulations so that fish oil-based TPN will be widely available across the country."

Other research examined infant cognitive development related to their mothers' exposure to high levels of mercury, PCBs and omega-3 fatty acids from eating seafood during pregnancy. In spite of their exposure to these contaminants, the infants' high level of prenatal DHA was linked to better outcomes, such as greater birth weight, gestational age, visual acuity, and higher mental and psychomotor developmental scores.

"These studies do not justify ignoring contaminants in seafood, but they add to a large body of evidence that the benefits of eating most species of fish during pregnancy outweigh the risks," Nettleton noted.

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