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Omega-3 during pregnancy: Benefits, Sources and Side Effects

Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their health benefits, but can you have them during pregnancy? Let us tell if it is safe to consume omega-3 during pregnancy.

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for our health, but our body cannot produce them naturally. The solution lies in food sources. People mostly have fatty fish or fish oil supplements to get omega-3. But during pregnancy, women are given a long list of what to eat and what to skip. Doubts about eating fish or any type of supplement when they are pregnant are common! So naturally, one may wonder if it is safe for you to have omega-3 during pregnancy.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

These fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat essential for our health. The body cannot produce them on its own, so we must obtain them through diet. Here are the main types of omega-3 fatty acids

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in fatty fish, fish oil, and marine algae.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fish oil, and marine algae.
Omega-3 during pregnancy
Fish is one of the sources of omega-3. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Here are sources of omega-3 fatty acids:

1. Fish

You can eat two or three servings of fish per week during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Safe options for pregnant women include salmon, sardines, mackerel, and trout. These fish are high in EPA and DHA and low in mercury, which can harm the baby’s nervous system.

2. Fish oil supplements

Fish oil supplements can be a good alternative if dietary intake of omega-3-rich fish is inadequate. However, it is important to choose high-quality supplements that are tested for purity and contaminants, says obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Chetna Jain.

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3. Algal oil supplements

For vegetarians and vegans, algal oil is a plant-based source of DHA and EPA. Algal oil is derived from marine algae and is free from contaminants like mercury.

4. Fortified foods

Want to add omega-3-rich foods to your diet? Look for eggs, milk, and yogurt that are fortified with DHA. They can help boost omega-3 intake.

5. Plant sources

While plant sources like flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds are rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), they are not as effective as direct sources of DHA and EPA. The body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but this process is inefficient.

How are omega-3 fatty acids beneficial for pregnant women?

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, have numerous benefits for both the mother and the baby, says the expert.

Benefits for the baby

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  • DHA is a major structural component of the brain, so adequate DHA intake during pregnancy improves cognitive function, and attention in babies.
  • DHA is also essential for the development of retina. It contributes to better visual development and function in the baby.
  • Omega-3 plays a vital role in the fetal neuronal growth and formation of neural connections.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids reduce risk of preterm birth, so they prevent respiratory problems and developmental delays.
  • Omega-3 is associated with healthier birth weights.

Benefits for the mother

  • Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce complications such as preeclampsia, characterised by high blood pressure and damage to other organs, like kidneys.
  • Omega-3 reduces the risk of prenatal and postpartum depression.
  • Pregnancy puts extra strain on the cardiovascular system, and omega-3 help maintain heart health by reducing triglycerides, lowering blood pressure, and preventing blood clots.
  • Omega-3 can reduce pregnancy-related inflammation, which can benefit both maternal and fetal health.

Is it safe for pregnant women to have omega-3 supplements?

Yes, it is generally safe for pregnant women to take omega-3 supplements, and it can be beneficial for both maternal and fetal health, says Dr Jain.

omega-3 and pregnancy
Omega-3 fish oil supplements can be taken during pregnancy. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Most rapid retinal and neural development in babies mainly occurs during the third trimester, so omega-3 fatty acids supplement may be especially important during this time, according to a 2008 research published in Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The typical recommended dosage of DHA during pregnancy is at least 200 to 300 mg per day, but the exact amount may vary based on individual needs and doctor’s recommendations, says the expert.

What are the side effects of omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are generally considered safe and beneficial for both pregnant women and their unborn babies. However, there can be potential side effects of omega-3 fatty acids:

1. Digestive issues

Some women may experience digestive discomfort, such as nausea, indigestion, diarrhea, or a fishy aftertaste. These symptoms are often mild and can be minimised by taking the supplement with meals.

2. Blood thinning

Omega-3 fatty acids have a mild blood-thinning effect, which can increase the risk of bleeding, particularly in people taking anticoagulant medications or those with bleeding disorders, says the expert.

3. Allergic reactions

Some women may have allergic reactions to fish oil supplements though it is rare. Its symptoms include rash, and itching.

Also, fish oil supplements derived from contaminated fish can contain mercury. High levels of mercury can negatively impact the developing baby’s nervous system. So, choose high-quality, purified supplements from reputable sources, says the expert. Taking very high doses of omega-3 supplements can lead to excessive bleeding and may impact immune function. It is important to stick to dosages recommended by your doctor.

Omega-3 fatty acids offer health benefits during pregnancy for both the mother and the baby. They may support brain development and reduce the risk of preterm birth, but there may be side effects.

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