For pregnant women, supplements of an omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may help to reduce the likelihood of giving birth very prematurely, according to a new study.
The results add to evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplements make pregnancy last a little longer, which means more development time for babies before birth, less hospital time after birth and a better long-term health outlook.
For the study, researchers from the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City recruited 350 women between eight and 20 weeks pregnant and gave half of them a supply of capsules, each containing 200 milligrams of algae-derived DHA, to take three times a day until giving birth. The other half of the women received identical-looking placebo capsules.
The research team found that overall, participants taking the DHA supplements tended to have slightly larger, heavier babies and to give birth about three days later than the placebo group.
Though there was little difference in the number of preterm births in both groups, the placebo group had considerably more births of very early preemies.
Normally, a full-term pregnancy lasts 39 weeks and babies born more than five weeks early are at the greatest risk for serious health problems and potentially long hospital stays.
Five percent of mothers in the placebo group had their babies at less than 34 weeks compared to less than one percent in the omega-3 group.
The researchers credit DHA with the differences because they measured fatty acid levels in mothers' and babies' blood, and found that only the DHA-supplemented mothers had raised DHA compared to the study's outset, and DHA was the only fatty acid whose level had changed.
DHA is important for brain and eye development, and the fatty acid can't be manufactured in the body and must be obtained by eating cold water fish or taking a supplement.
Women are encouraged to eat fish twice a week during their pregnancy to get DHA. Good sources of DHA that are also low in mercury include salmon, trout, sardines, herring and mackerel.
SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 20, 2013.
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