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Dr. Andrew Stoll on Omega-3s & Fetal Development

The following is an excerpt from The Omega-3 Connection by Andrew Stoll, M.D., who serves on the faculty of Harvard Medical School:

In the moment of fertilization, the egg and sperm join to form a single cell, the zygote. In the first hours and days of life, the zygote will divide again and again, ultimately giving rise to the specialized cells and organs of the baby.

As the cells and organs differentiate taking on final form, their nutritional requirements will come to differ as well. The developing brain in particular has a huge and absolute requirement for energy in the form of oxygen and glucose, and for structural molecules, including fatty acids of the omega-6 and omega-3 class.

As the fetal brain grows from a few hundred cells to billions of neurons and supporting cells, it draws these essential elements from the blood. The bloodstream ultimately touches every brain cell—like all cells—through tiny blood vessels called capillaries, which permeate the entire tissue.

The substances that flow through the fetal bloodstream originate with the mother. Inhaled oxygen and nutrients extracted from food eaten by the mother flow through her bloodstream and travel to the placenta. There, the bloodstreams of mother and baby come in intimate contact, ultimately transferring the vital nutrients and oxygen to the fetus developing in the womb via the umbilical cord.

When maternal blood is rich in oxygen and nutrients, the unborn child can thrive. But thousands of research studies document the consequences when maternal blood is deficient in some nutrients…. Since essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured by the human body, the fetus acquires all omega-3s from the mother’s bloodstream, and ultimately from her diet and the stores of EPA and DHA in her tissues.

Imagine a scenario in which the mother is partially depleted of omega-3 fatty acids. Since omega-3 fatty acids are actively transported to the developing baby, EPA and DHA will be siphoned off from the mother to meet the high demand of the baby’s brain and body development. If there is just enough for the baby, fetal development can proceed normally.

The outcome for the mother in this situation is less certain. Depleted of omega-3 fatty acids, the pregnant and then postpartum woman may experience a host of health problems.

The situation is probably worse in the case of the pregnant woman depleted of omega-3s. In this case, neither the mother nor the developing baby will have adequate levels of omega-3 oils, laying the groundwork for a host of documented health consequences.

Omega-3 deficit during pregnancy delivers a devastating double blow: it compromises the future integrity of the baby’s brain and possibly general health and may affect the mother’s current and future health as well as perhaps putting the pregnancy itself at risk…