According to a new study, expectant mothers can reduce their newborns’ odds of catching cold by taking fish oil supplements during pregnancy.
Researchers at Emory University gave certain expectant mothers 400 mg per day of an omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil called DHA, and others a placebo. Children of the mothers who took the real thing caught fewer colds, as measured by coughing, congestion and runny noses, over the first six months of their lives, than children of the mothers who didn’t. After six months the number of colds evened out between the two groups, but the DHA babies recovered from their colds more quickly.
This study is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) mothers’ diets during pregnancy appear to affect their children’s health even following birth; and (2) it appears that DHA supplements taken during pregnancy have a favorable impact following birth.
The first offers a cautionary note to pregnant mothers. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, their own diets may have even more of an impact on their children than we previously believed.
The second suggests that there may be something behind the recent fish oil craze. Though I’m generally wary of supplements (Americans don’t typically suffer many vitamin deficiencies to begin with, and research has found few other benefits from taking them), this one appears to have an impact. And, despite my general wariness of supplements, the effectiveness of fish oil supplements doesn’t surprise me; before I went vegan I took them myself.
So, why are fish oil supplements beneficial when most supplements fail to show any kind of benefit?
The reason is a change to our diets that has thrown out of balance one of the fatty acids present in large quantities in fish oil: omega-3 fatty acids. By raising most of our cattle and chickens today on grains instead of the leafy greens (and, in the case of chickens, insects) that they traditionally ate, we’ve changed the nutritional composition of our animal products.
Today’s beef has far more omega-6 fatty acids than it used to, and far less omega-3. The same is true of eggs. Probably it’s true of cow’s milk as well, though I have never seen that specifically reported. And this is not a trivial difference: omega-6 is an inflammatory fatty acid, and omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. Both serve a purpose in our body, but when you replace one with the other you tend to flow toward one end.
In our case, we end up with more inflammatory diet than may be healthy. This inflammation shows up in factors for heart disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Taking fish oil supplements may well help to restore the inflammation balance and could potentially alleviate the symptoms of, or reduce the risk of, these ailments.
And apparently it has an impact on our immune systems, at least when we are very young. It may not be that we’re making children healthier by feeding their mothers fish oil supplements, but rather that we’ve made them less healthy by feeding their mothers animal products with an omega-3 to omega-6 imbalance. And the fish oil supplements reduce this harmful effect.
So, why have I stopped taking fish oil supplements since turning vegan? My self-prohibition on animal products of course precludes me from eating fish, but I have another reason: my guess is, without putting today’s nutritionally altered animal products in my body, I’m avoiding the omega-3 to omega-6 imbalance to begin with, and so have no reason to take supplements to correct it.
But it appears that expectant mothers who do eat today’s animal products may be doing their children a favor by taking a fish oil capsule or two each day.