DHA During Pregnancy May Cut Infant Colds

Getting Enough of the Essential Fatty Acid DHA During Pregnancy May Help Prevent Colds in Newborns, Study Finds

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on August 01, 2011

Aug. 1, 2011 -- Getting enough of an essential fatty acid during pregnancy may help prevent colds in newborns.

A new study shows that women who received supplements of the fatty acid known as DHA during pregnancy had babies that had fewer colds at age 1 month. The babies also had fewer coughing episodes and fevers in the first six months of life.

DHA is part of a group of fatty acids that are essential for human development known as omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is found in algae and in fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna.

Another type of omega-3 fatty acid called ALA is found in nuts and seeds like walnuts and flaxseed. The human body converts these plant sources of ALA to DHA.

Although previous studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy assist in healthy brain and eye development of the fetus, other studies on the effect of essential fatty acids during pregnancy on immune function development have offered mixed results.

DHA Helps Babies Fight Illness

In this study, researchers compared the effects of 400 milligrams per day of DHA (via an algae-based supplement) or a placebo started from weeks 18 to 22 of pregnancy and continued through childbirth on infant wellness in a group of 851 Mexican women.

The results showed that infants whose mothers took DHA supplements had fewer colds at age 1 month and shorter duration of cold symptoms at 1, 3, and 6 months of age.

“Overall, infants in the DHA group were determined to be healthier on the basis of the observation that fewer of these infants experienced a cold at 1 month, and they experienced a significantly shorter duration of all illnesses at 3 months, but longer duration of a few symptoms at certain time points,” researcher Beth Imhoff-Kunsch, PhD, MPH, of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, and colleagues write in Pediatrics.

For example, at age 1 month, the infants in the DHA group had a shorter duration of cough, phlegm, and wheezing, although they had a longer duration of rash. At age 3 months, the infants in the DHA group spent 14% less time ill, and by 6 months of age these infants had experienced shorter durations of fever, nasal secretion, difficulty breathing, and rash but a longer duration of vomiting.

Researchers say the amount of DHA supplementation examined in the study, 400 milligrams per day, could be achieved through diet by eating foods rich in these types of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish and omega-3 fortified eggs.

Pregnant women are advised by the FDA to eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

The FDA advises pregnant women to limit albacore tuna intake to 6 ounces a week because it has more mercury than canned light tuna.

The FDA also advises pregnant women to avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because these fish contain high levels of mercury.