A new study suggests that pregnant mothers who take DHA supplements with the intent of boosting their babies' brains are also giving them some added protection against common colds.
DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil and other natural sources. The health experts recommend that women take at least 200 milligrams of DHA every day during pregnancy and while they are nursing to “help support mental, visual and motor skill development.”
According to Usha Ramakrishnan, a child nutrition expert and associate professor of global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, in Atlanta, and colleagues they suspected that DHA would also help babies fight colds. To test their theory, they recruited nearly 1,000 Mexican women who were about halfway through their pregnancies. Roughly half of them took two, 200-mg DHA pills each day, and the rest got dummy pills. The study volunteers took the pills until their babies were born. Neither the mothers nor their doctors knew who was taking DHA and who wasn’t.
When the researchers checked in on the babies one month later, 38% of the infants whose mothers took the DHA pills had experienced cold symptoms in the previous 15 days, compared with 45% of infants whose mothers got the placebo. The gap remained when the babies were 3 months old – 38% vs. 44%. Also when 1-month-old babies in the DHA group had cold symptoms like cough, phlegm and wheezing, those symptoms cleared up about 25% faster than they did for babies in the placebo group. Those gaps closed in subsequent months, but when the babies were 6 months old, the ones in the DHA group got over fevers, runny noses and breathing problems more quickly than babies in the placebo group.
“Recommending women to take a dose of up to 400 milligrams of DHA during pregnancy would be safe, [but] how much of a benefit there is we don’t know yet,” said Ramakrishnan. She added, “There is research to suggest that the fatty acid composition of many of our cells—particularly the immune cells—affect their function.” Ramakrishnan said the findings can likely be extrapolated to the Hispanic population in the U.S. and most probably to other ethnic and racial groups, but more research will be needed to confirm the results.
The FDA advises that pregnant women eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. The study was funded by the March of Dimes and the National Institutes of Health. It was published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.