Fish Oil: Not the Miracle Supplement We Thought?

fish oil
Fish oil capsules. Good for pregnancy?

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a study by the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in North Adelaide, Australia indicating that “women taking fish oil capsules during pregnancy are not more likely to stave off postpartum depression nor boost the mental development of their babies,” Reuters reports.

Fish oil, on the other hand, does reduce the chances of giving birth too early, but may result in a pregnancy going past its due date. (Which could lead to induction, which may wind up in C-section.) Does that mean DHA isn’t the miracle fatty acid we thought it was?

Nutritionists and doctors have heralded the importance of getting DHA while pregnant. Dr. Mary Harris, professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University, says, “In research that studied maternal nutrition and how it affected babies, moms who ate the least amount of fish during pregnancy had babies with the lowest brain and eye test scores,” adding, “moms who eat three servings of fish each week have the brainiest babies; they speak earlier and have better social skills.”

But according to this new study, that’s just not true.  Reuters reports that the Australian researchers “found no differences in babbling, verbal comprehension and other language development, nor in cognitive measures such as exploring objects and forming concepts” in 18 month olds whose mothers took fish oil while pregnant and those whose mothers didn’t.  I wonder if that’s due to the source of the DHA.  At a roundtable discussion with Harris this summer, she mentioned that fish is a much better source of DHA than any capsule.  It would be interesting to see the same study performed on women who ate an equivalent amount of fish as their omega 3 source.

There were no negative side effects associated with taking fish oil pills during pregnancy, except extra belching. (Excuse me.)  I take fish oil myself for its reported ability to promote good mental heath and cognitive ability.  Even if it’s just a placebo effect, after being diagnosed as having white plaque in my brain a few years ago, I feel better erring on the side of caution, especially given that there have been no negative side effects associated with the supplement.

I think it’s strange that this study is deriding DHA, and that one of the authors even goes so far as to say, “Before DHA supplementation in pregnancy becomes widespread, it is important to know not only if there are benefits, but also of any risks for either the mother or child.”  The New York Times chides previous studies involving DHA for being small, or “observ(ing) women already taking fish oil, who might be more health-conscious.”  The Times quotes Dr. Emily Oken of Harvard as saying, “It’s puzzling because observational studies have shown benefits,” and notes that, “Scientists agree that DHA, naturally transmitted to a fetus through the placenta in the last half of pregnancy, is important, probably to visual and brain development.”