Why Omega-3 is needed in pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
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Dr. Leah Gordon is a naturopathic doctor who plays an active and valued, role on Needed’s Advisory Board. As a specialist in women’s health and an expert in integrative and functional medicine, she is able to cast a wide net across her patients’ overall health and go deeper into the root causes of their unique health issues. Today, she explores the vital role of Omega-3 throughout different stages along the life path, how nutrient deficiencies can lead to discomfort and disease, and how incorporating a whole foods diet and appropriate nutritional supplementation can help achieve optimal health.
The content on this page is provided for informational purposes only and reflects the thoughts and opinions of the persons providing the information and not Needed PBC. This information should not be construed in any way as providing medical advice. If you have a health concern, you should contact your own health care practitioner.
In my practice as a naturopathic doctor, I use nutrition as one of the primary tools in treating women who are between the life stages of pre-conception and perimenopause. One of the most crucial nutrients that I see playing a role in the health of women all along the life path is Omega-3. To explore the role that these important fats play in a woman’s life, let’s use the example of Lucy, a woman in her early thirties. While Lucy is not a specific patient, her story is one that mirrors those of many women I know and treat. Certain threads of her experiences are likely woven throughout our own life journeys, our own health stories.
Here we go.
Like many of my patients, when Lucy came in to see me, she was struggling with painful periods, recurrent acne, mild depression, joint pain, and a desire to become pregnant in the next year. When I ran her Omega-3 fatty acid profile, she was deficient in both EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), the two bioavailable and essential Omega-3 fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids are fats that we must consume in our diet, as we cannot make them on our own. These nutrients are incredibly important for our health, so it’s important to understand what they are, what puts us at risk for deficiency, and how their presence - or absence - may impact our health and the health of our families.
Our story begins.
To unravel this story, it makes logical sense to start at the beginning of Lucy’s life: the day she was born. Our story, however, actually starts before birth. In the moment that Lucy took her first breath, every cell in her body, much of the genetic expression of the DNA within those cells, and her future health potential had partially been established. Her mother’s lifestyle, environmental exposures, nutrition, stress levels, and emotional health prior to and during pregnancy impacted every single little cell from her brain to her heart, and everything in-between.
At the time of Lucy’s conception, her mother was like many women in the United States: eating the Standard American Diet -- generally characterized by high intakes of foods such as grain-fed or processed meats, pre-packaged meals and snacks, fried foods, refined grains, and high-sugar drinks -- and avoiding fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines. She didn’t have wonderful access to fish, and she didn’t particularly like the taste. Given this information, it’s very possible Lucy’s mother was deficient in Omega-3 fats, as they are found primarily in coldwater fatty fish and algae. This could have contributed to Lucy’s deficiency early on.
Why is this significant? The Omega-3 fats, especially DHA, are particularly important for proper development and growth of a baby’s brain and eyes. The brain consumes 20% of the body’s total energy despite being only 2% of the body mass. It is made up primarily of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), including the Omega-3 fats. DHA should make up around 90% of the Omega-3s in the brain. The presence or absence of this nutrient in utero and in childhood greatly influences the cognitive ability of a person. This includes attention, memory (working and long-term), perception, language, problem solving, comprehension, reasoning, computation, reading, and speech. In addition to that, 30% of the fatty acids in the outer segment membrane of the retinal photoreceptors of our eyes are composed of these Omega-3 fats, predominantly DHA. This nutrient greatly impacts vision and visual acuity. This is why it is so important for infants and children to get adequate DHA in their diets.
Lucy may not have had the adequate DHA and EPA she needed to thrive optimally and prevent many of the conditions that started showing up in her young life.
Adolescence, adulthood, and inflammation.
If we fast forward to Lucy’s teenage and young adult years, we see the next major impact that the presence or absence of Omega-3 had in Lucy’s life: inflammation.
Inflammation is a normal process that happens in the body in response to a stressor of some kind. We often think of inflammation in the acute setting, such as when we bump our knee and it turns red, hot, and swollen. The body sends out little chemicals called cytokines that cause the reactions we see. This process is necessary for acute healing. However, we do not want these inflammatory cytokines circulating around our body all of the time because they can cause serious damage. We call this chronic inflammation, and it plays a major role in numerous conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and coronary artery disease.
Why did this happen? Like many of us, Lucy adopted a diet similar to that of her mother as a child and teenager. For the majority of her young life, the predominant fats in her diet were saturated fats and vegetable oils from fast foods and trans fats from packaged foods. Although she strived to be healthier as she became older, avoiding gluten and eating more whole foods, she ended up eating a lot of corn-based products and still avoided fish, such as salmon, as she never acquired the taste. I explained to Lucy that her dietary choices have been much higher in the Omega-6 fats than the Omega-3s. This created the perfect storm for inflammation to begin in her young body.
How could the fat in her diet possibly contribute to symptoms like acne and painful periods? Just as our brains are composed mainly of fat, every single cell in our body is surrounded by a fatty membrane called the lipid bilayer. Every time we eat, the fat in that meal becomes the fat that builds the lipid bilayer around each cell. When our cells come into contact with a stimuli or stressor, as they do numerous times a day, a fat is released from the membrane, and it goes through a series of transformations to turn into a molecule or chemical that will impact the body in some way. The type of fat that is present in the membrane determines which transformation will take place.
For instance, if we bump our knee, an inflammation-producing Omega-6 fat, called arachidonic acid, will be released. This fat will go down a certain pathway, which is essentially a series of transformations, resulting in a molecule called a prostaglandin. Prostaglandins are an inflammatory group in a family of molecules called eicosanoids. These prostaglandins influence the inflammation we see in the hot, red, and swollen knee. They are also the culprits contributing to painful periods, as we see in Lucy’s case.
As previously mentioned, this inflammatory response is good in an injury, but if someone’s body is full of inflammatory fats, such as arachidonic acid, this inflammatory response is happening inside of their body all of the time, contributing to symptoms similar to Lucy’s. Arachidonic acid is found mainly in grain and corn-fed animal products, processed meats, pasta, and other grain-based products. This is why if you choose to eat meat, it is important to eat grass-fed options that are naturally higher in the anti-inflammatory fats. This is also why many people feel better when they reduce the amount of corn, wheat, and other grains in their diets.
Transformation is needed.
Although DHA is our hero for brain and eye health, EPA is the true star when it comes to inflammation. If our cell membranes are full of EPA and a stressor causes its release, EPA doesn’t turn into an inflammatory eicosanoid like arachidonic acid does. Instead, it turns into a group of anti-inflammatory molecules called resolvins. It also helps to modulate and reduce the activity of other molecules, such as inflammatory cytokines. This results in a reduction of inflammation systemically, or throughout the entire body.
When Lucy made the decision to make lifestyle changes, specifically with her diet, she experienced improved health across the board. She shifted her eating habits to include whole foods, with lots of organic vegetables and fruits, root vegetables, lentils, nuts, seeds, grass-fed and free-range protein, and also added in wild-caught salmon and supplemental Omega-3 fatty acids. The results? Her acne cleared up, her mood improved, her joint pain reduced, and her period pain decreased significantly--all signs of reduced inflammation. She was truly able to use food as medicine.
Starting healthy habits before they’re born is needed.
Once Lucy’s initial concerns had resolved, she was ready to have a baby. Omega-3 plays an incredibly important role at this stage of a woman’s life. Due to the fact that babies often pull the necessary nutrients from their mother in utero and during breastfeeding, it is essential to get enough EPA and DHA in her diet to ensure adequate stores for her child, as well as herself.
In addition to helping develop her baby’s brain, vision, and central nervous system in utero and during breastfeeding, Omega-3 is important for her own hormonal balance and mood during pregnancy. These fatty acids may help prevent her from going into early labor or developing preeclampsia. After birth, EPA and DHA may help to prevent allergies, continue to support optimal development, and reduce other inflammatory responses, such as eczema, in her new child.
As Lucy’s life continues and she decides to have one or two more kids, these stores of Omega-3 become more and more essential, as each pregnancy has the potential to deplete Omega-3 stores from a mother. Having a body that is full of anti-inflammatory fats, such as EPA, may support her in feeling energized, happy, and full, so she can support and give energy not only to her children, but also to herself during this season of her life.
Healthy aging is needed.
After working with me, Lucy began to understand the life-changing impact that a healthy diet, including adequate Omega-3, could have on her life. She shared this information with her mother, and let her know that bringing these important fats into her life could help prevent cardiovascular disease in later years.
Because many chronic diseases are rooted in inflammation, reducing this process systemically results in the prevention of numerous conditions and symptoms in the body. One that we often see in this stage of life is heart or cardiovascular disease. Similar to the inflammation that was contributing to Lucy’s painful periods, prostaglandins are also involved in cardiovascular disease. Bringing EPA and DHA into the body reduces prostaglandins, resulting in improved platelet and endothelial, or inner blood vessel lining, function. Through cellular gene expression, Omega-3s may be a main factor in preventing other inflammatory conditions such as joint pain, depression, and menopausal symptoms as women journey into their later decades of life.
Generational health is needed.
As we saw throughout Lucy’s story, nutrition plays a crucial role in health at every stage along the life path. By addressing the nutrition of one family member, the entire family’s health may be improved, as in the case of Lucy, her baby and her mother. For this reason, I coach my patients on the generational impact of better nutrition.
Lucy came to me for help with acne, painful periods, joint pain, mild depression, and a desire for a healthy pregnancy. She learned how to transform her life through diet and two essential Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. She now has the tools to influence the health of her future babies’ brains, eyes, and overall health, and to support her own health both pre and post pregnancies. She has helped to influence the health of her mother’s heart, and she has shifted the health trajectory of her own life, setting herself up for graceful aging as she journeys through the next few decades of her life.
This isn’t just Lucy’s story. This story can be true for many of us. Where are you on your life journey, and how can you relate to Lucy’s struggles and triumphs? What changes can you make to shift the health trajectory of your own life or that of your family or community, your tribe? Remember, the body has an amazing ability to heal, and it is never too late to begin.
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