Omega-3 linked to reduced premature births

Increased intake of omega-3 long-chain fatty acids during pregnancy has been found to reduce risk of premature birth, according to a recent Cochrane review

A Cochrane review has found evidence that omega-3 consumption during pregnancy through supplements or food, compared with placebo or no omega-3, could reduce risk of preterm birth (< 37 weeks) by 11%.

The review also found omega-3 interventions could reduce early preterm birth (< 34 weeks) by 42%.

Both findings were made on the basis of high-quality evidence.

However the researchers from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) found that omega-3 supplementation probably increases the incidence of prolonged gestation (> 42 weeks) compared with no omega-3, based on moderate quality evidence, from 1.6% to 2.6% (RR 1.61, 95% CI 1.11 to 2.33).

The review included 70 randomised controlled trials involving 19,927 women, which compared omega-3 supplement or food interventions with placebo or no omega-3.

Professor Maria Makrides, deputy director of SAHMRI, says the results from the Cochrane review are an “extremely promising finding”.

“We now have strong evidence that omega-3 supplements are a simple and cost-effectiveness intervention to prevent premature birth, which we know has serious health implications,” says Professor Makrides.

Premature babies are at greater risk of chronic issues with their respiratory, immune and digestive systems, and they’re more susceptible to problems with speech, social skills, learning and behaviour, she says.

When consumed in the diet, the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be converted to biologically active derivatives including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Such fatty acids are precursors to a range of compounds that are known to minimise and help resolve inflammatory responses and oxidative stress, which have been implicated in preterm birth.

Fish and seafood are the richest dietary sources of DHA, however women of childbearing age may be reluctant to increase their fish intake due to perceptions that mercury and other pollutants in the fish may affect their unborn child.

According to research shared by Cochrane, only 10% of women of childbearing age in Australia meet the recommended DHA intake—including fish as well as fish oil supplementation.

The Cochrane review results show pregnant women may benefit from increasing DHA in their diet, either from food sources or as supplements.

Professor Makrides’ team suggests women expecting a single baby begin taking a daily dose of omega-3s at the 12-week stage of their pregnancy.

“By increasing their omega-3 intake, women can give themselves the best chance of carrying their baby to full term,” she says.

“Even a few extra days in the womb can make a substantial difference when it comes to your baby’s health.”

Another recent Cochrane review on omega-3 supplements, including 79 randomised controlled trials (112,059 participants), found moderate‐ and high‐quality evidence that increasing omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has little or no effect on mortality or cardiovascular health.

See the full Cochrane review on ‘Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy’ here.

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