DHA supplements for lactating women may offer breast milk and baby benefits

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Breast milk Omega-3 fatty acid Fatty acid Essential fatty acid

DHA supplements for lactating women may offer breast milk and baby benefits
Supplementation with DHA omega-3 in lactating women increases breast milk levels of the essential fatty acid, and could help infants achieve a better omega 3:6 ratio, finds new research from Abbot Nutrition.

The study, published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA)​, investigated the effects of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplementation on the fatty acid composition of breast milk and plasma concentrations in lactating women and their infants – finding that supplementation significantly improved levels of the fatty acid in breast milk and in the plasma of both mother and baby.

Led by Dr Christina Sherry from Abbott Nutrition, the research team noted that the composition of human breast milk reflects the nutritional status and dietary intake of the lactating mother – adding that DHA has gained increasing attention in pregnancy and lactation, due to its role in brain development, “as it accounts for over 10% of brain fatty acids and is essential for infant development.”

“This study demonstrates that in a population with low dietary intake of DHA, supplementation results in an increase in breast milk and maternal DHA at levels that would reflect adequate dietary intake and beneficially impact fatty acid ratios in infants important for brain development,”​wrote the team – who tested mother’s with both lower (200 mg of DHA) or higher (400 mg of DHA) levels of supplementation.

“These data are the first to demonstrate that the infants from both the low and high dose supplemented mothers reported a 40% and 51%, respectively, lower n-6:3 fatty acid ratio, as compared to infants from the placebo mothers,”​ they added.

Research details

In the study, 89 lactating women all of whom were 4–6 weeks post-partum received either a placebo, 200 mg or 400 mg DHA for six weeks alongside their usual diets. Breast milk fatty acids and maternal plasma fatty acids were measured at the beginning and end of the study and infant plasma at the end of the study.

Sherry and her team found that breast milk and maternal plasma DHA were significantly greater with 200 mg and 400 mg DHA compared with placebo – with increases of 50% and 123% respectively for breast milk and 71% and 101% for plasma.

Infant plasma omega-6:3 and arachidonic acid (AA):DHA were also significantly greater in the placebo group compared to both supplement group, said the team – noting that a lower omega-6:3 ratio diet during brain development has been suggested to result in a greater relative percentage DHA accumulation in three critical regions of the brain, while other research has suggested that an imbalance in omega-6:3 early in life may lead to irreversible changes in the hypothalamus.

While the Sherry and her colleagues noted that findings on the long-term cognitive impact of DHA supplementation during pregnancy remain are inconclusive, “the importance of adequate PUFA in the infant diet for normal growth and development is well established.”

They added that ‘numerous’ consensus statements recommend at least 200 mg per day of DHA for pregnant and lactating women, but that data from the current research and other research show that many lactating women are only receiving around 25% of this recommended amount. 

Indeed, research last week​ reported that almost three-quarters of pregnant women have an omega-3 intake that does not meet European recommendations.

Source: Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA)
Volume 95, April 2015, Pages 63–69, doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2015.01.005
“Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation in lactating women increases breast milk and plasma docosahexaenoic acid concentrations and alters infant omega 6:3 fatty acid ratio”
Authors: C.L. Sherry, et al

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