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Pregnancy and Fish Oil

The Study

The double blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial was conducted by the University of Western Australia and led by Professor Susan Prescott. Also involved in the study were King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, Princess Margaret Hospital for Children and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and Centre for Child Health Research Australia.

A total of 98 women were initially enrolled in the study, all of who were non smokers and who did not regularly consume more than 2 portions of oily fish a week. A total of eighty three of these women completed the study. Researchers gave half of the women in the trial 4gr of fish oil supplements on a daily basis from twenty weeks of pregnancy and these supplements contained a combination of both Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The remainder of the women were given 4gr of Olive Oil. Development checks were carried out on a total of 72 of the babies when they had reached the age of two and a half years.

The children whose mothers received fish oil had a significantly higher score for eye-hand coordination than the babies whose mothers had been given olive oil instead. The growth rates were similar in both groups, as were the general language skills, however, the fish oil group showed higher scores for receptive language, phrase length and vocabulary. The positive results were not related to possibly influential factors such as maternal age and length of time breastfeeding as these factors had already been accounted for.

Fatty acids and the brain

The link between Omega 3 fatty acids and the brain has already been well established and many studies have now shown that fish oil can alleviate the symptoms or help to prevent the onset of several types of depressive disorders, including post natal depression. EPA in particular is believed to improve concentration and memory and cognitive function in general, and some studies have shown it can even help to prevent or slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

It is during the last three months of pregnancy that the baby’s brain is developing very rapidly and so this is a time when it is particularly vital that the mother gets enough of the essential Omega 3 fatty acids that are only found in any significant quantities in oily fish such as Salmon, Tuna, Mackerel, Herring and Anchovies. These fatty acids facilitate healthy structure and development of the brain and many professionals now believe it is DHA that is important for the structure of the brain and EPA for efficient functioning of the brain on a day to day basis.

Scientists at The University of Bristol in the UK are currently investigating the benefits of giving fish oil to children, as much of the evidence to date has come from dietary factors during pregnancy. For example, previous research by Bristol University found that children whose mothers ate fish regularly during pregnancy had better vision and cognitive development and behaviour than those whose mothers ate little or no fish.

So why don’t we just eat more fish?

Due to the potentially high levels of toxins, particularly mercury, in fresh fish, the current recommendation is for pregnant women and women and girls who might have a baby one day in the future to eat no more than 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily, and no more than 4 portions of fish for everyone else, no more than two of which should be oily.

The indications are that Pharmaceutical grade fish oil might be an option for everyone, including during pregnancy and beyond. Indeed, this type of fish oil is superior to standard grade fish oils and is becoming increasingly popular because the processes involved in producing it means the oil has been filtered and concentrated to contain high levels of the all important fatty acids without the danger of toxins associated with fresh fish.


The Australian study would appear to suggest that there are no adverse effects for mother or baby from taking relatively high doses of fish oil in late pregnancy. Not only can it have a beneficial effect on baby’s cognitive development and reduce the risk of developing post natal depression, there are also numerous other health benefits associated with taking fish oil. However, if you are pregnant or trying to conceive and would like to consider the option of taking fish oil supplements, it is important that you discuss the implications with your doctor or other health care provider first.