Encouraging pregnant women to take omega-3 supplements could be an “effective strategy” for preventing preterm birth, according to the authors of a review of research on the issue.
A Cochrane review has found taking omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) during pregnancy can help women have a full-term gestation period, as well as help their baby to grow to a healthy weight in the womb.
“Our review found the optimum dose was a daily supplement containing between 500 and 1,000mg of long-chain omega-3 fats”
Led by researchers from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, it reviewed long-chain omega-3, derived from fish oil and algal oil.
Their review looked closely at docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in fatty fish and fish oil supplements, and the role they have in reducing the risk of preterm births.
The study included 70 randomised trials and found that for pregnant women, increasing the daily intake of long-chain omega-3s resulted in a range of benefits.
It lowered the risk of having a premature baby (less than 37 weeks) by 11%, from 134 per 1,000 to 119 per 1,000 births.
It also lowered the risk of having an early premature baby (less than 34 weeks) by 42%, from 46 per 1,000 to 27 per 1,000 births, and reduced the risk of having a small baby (less than 2,500g) by 10%.
Back in 2006 when a Cochrane review was first undertaken on the issue, there was not enough evidence to support the routine use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements during pregnancy.
But over a decade later, the updated version of the review has found high quality evidence for the supplements to be used as an “effective strategy” for preventing a premature birth, said the authors.
“We hope this review will make a real contribution to the evidence base we need to reduce premature births”
As a result, the researchers advised that women who are pregnant with one baby, should take omega-3 supplements each day starting from 12 weeks of pregnancy and to look specifically for the omega-3s called DHA and EPA.
Premature birth is the leading cause of death globally for children under five years, accounting for close to one million deaths annually.
Premature babies are at higher risk of a range of long-term conditions including visual impairment, developmental delay and learning difficulties.
Review author and associate professor, Philippa Middleton, explained premature birth as a “critical global health issue”, with an “estimated 15 million babies born too early each year”.
“While the length 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 poor health,” she said.
- Omega-3 pills offer ‘little or no benefit’ for heart health
- Omega-3s foods may not protect against cognitive decline
- Questions over omega-3 supplements for depression
The associate professor highlighted the importance of making new findings in this field, as there were not many options for preventing premature birth.
“We don’t yet fully understand the causes of premature labour, so predicting and preventing early birth has always been a challenge,” she said.
“This is one of the reasons omega-3 supplementation in pregnancy is of such great interest to researchers around the world,” she added.
While many pregnant women in the UK are already taking omega-3 supplements, Dr Middleton noted that many available on the market did not contain the optimal dose or type of omega-3 for preventing premature birth.
“Our review found the optimum dose was a daily supplement containing between 500 and 1,000 milligrams (mg) of long-chain omega-3 fats (containing at least 500mg of DHA) starting at 12 weeks of pregnancy,” she said.
She said: “Ultimately, we hope this review will make a real contribution to the evidence base we need to reduce premature births, which continue to be one of the most pressing and intractable maternal and child health problems in every country around the world.”