Reducing Preterm Birth – A Promising New Study of DHA Omega-3

By:  Susan Carlson, Ph.D. and Robert K. McNamara, Ph.D.

November 16, 2018

Beginning a daily dietary supplement with a combination of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the second trimester of pregnancy could reduce nearly half of early preterm births (less than 34 weeks gestation) and significantly reduce preterm birth (less than 37 weeks gestation) and low birth weight (<2500 grams) according to an updated Cochrane systematic review released this week. The systematic review includes results of 70 clinical trials with 19,927 pregnancies. The review finds high-quality evidence for a 42 percent reduction in birth before 34 weeks gestation, an 11 percent reduction in births before 37 weeks gestation and a 10 percent reduction in low birth weight.  The reduction in low birth weight was more pronounced in trials that provided between 500 and 1,000 mg per day of omega-3 fatty acids. Most studies were conducted in countries with relatively low rates of preterm birth, so the potential worldwide impact could be greater. As a result of these findings the authors recommend the use of a supplement with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that contain at least 500 mg of DHA, with supplementation beginning from 12 weeks of pregnancy.  This is earlier than previously recommended.

Preterm Birth

Preterm birth is defined as birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm birth is associated with an increased risk for cognitive impairment and psychiatric disorders, including ADHD and depression, breathing problems, feeding difficulties, cerebral palsy and vision and hearing problems. Preterm births that occur before 34 weeks are most likely to result in long-term deficits in health and development. There are known risks for giving birth preterm, including high blood pressure, being under- or overweight, stress, and being a member of certain racial and ethnic groups.

DHA Omega-3 Supplementation

Research to predict who will have a preterm birth is promising; however, there is no guaranteed way to reduce preterm birth. The findings of the current study provide some hope.  Omega-3 supplementation offers a low cost, low risk strategy to reduce preterm birth.

Prenatal supplements with DHA are widely available in the United States; however, most prenatal supplements deliver less than 500 mg of DHA per day.

To learn more about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy and understand which prenatal supplement is right for you, please ask your health care provider which prenatal supplement you should take to reduce the risk of preterm birth.

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