Pregnant women who increase their intake of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) may reduce the risk of preterm birth, according to a new study published in the journal. Cochrane Review.
"We know that preterm birth is a critical global health problem with about 15 million babies born early each year," said associate professor Philippa Middleton of the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth and the Australian Institute for Medical Research and Health Southern (SAHMRI).
"While the duration of most pregnancies is between 38 and 42 weeks, premature babies are those born before the 37-week mark – and the earlier a baby is born, the greater the risk of death or health problems."
Babies born prematurely are at increased risk for a number of long-term conditions, including visual impairment, developmental delay, and learning disabilities.
Middleton and a team of Cochrane researchers closely examined long-chain omega-3 fats and their role in reducing the risk of preterm birth; particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in supplements of fatty fish and fish oil.
For the study, they reviewed 70 randomized trials and found that for pregnant women increasing daily intake of long-chain omega-3:
- reduces the risk of having a premature baby (less than 37 weeks) by 11 percent (from 134 per 1,000 to 119 per 1,000 births);
- reduces the risk of premature infants (less than 34 weeks) by 42 percent (from 46 per 1,000 to 27 per 1,000 births);
- reduces the risk of having a small baby (less than 5.5 pounds or 2,500g) by 10%.
"There are not many options to prevent preterm birth, so these new discoveries are very important to pregnant women, babies and health care providers who take care of them," Middleton says.
"We still do not fully understand the causes of preterm labor, so predicting and preventing preterm labor has always been a challenge. This is one of the reasons why omega-3 supplementation in pregnancy is of great interest to researchers around the world. "
This review was first performed in 2006. At that time, the researchers concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the routine use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements during pregnancy. More than a decade later, however, this updated review concludes that there is high-quality evidence for omega-3 supplementation to be used as an effective strategy to prevent preterm birth.
"Many pregnant women in the UK are already taking omega-3 supplements by personal choice and not as a result of advice from health professionals," Middleton said.
"It is worth noting that many supplements currently on the market do not contain the optimal dose or type of omega-3s to prevent prematurity. Our review found that the ideal dose was a daily supplement containing 500-1000 milligrams (mg) of Long-chain omega-3 fats (containing at least 500mg of DHA) from 12 weeks of gestation.
"Finally, we hope that this review will really contribute to the evidence base we need to reduce preterm deliveries, which continue to be one of the most urgent and intractable maternal and child health problems in every country in the world."