How Omega-3s Can Support Your Baby’s Defenses
Spring officially starts in one week, so you would think the illnesses that threatened us all winter long would magically disappear. Think again. According to the CDC, the exact timing and duration of flu seasons can vary, but it seems to increase in October, with most flu activity peaking between December and February. Still, while flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter, activity can last as late as May.
Same with the cold. Although colds seem to peak in the winter, there is always the chance you will catch one in the summer. This is because these illnesses are not caused by weather, but rather viruses. One reason they are more prominent in wintertime is that many people spend their time indoors passing around germs from one person to one another. Viruses also travel well in cold and dry air.
Regardless of the time of year, especially if you are a new or expecting mom, it makes sense to take all of the necessary precautions to limit your chances of catching these illnesses. Some simple steps you can take include washing your hands and trying to avoid coming into contact with someone who is sick.
You can take these efforts a step further by eating a healthy diet and supplementing with nutrients known to help fortify your immune system (and your baby’s). Don’t be fooled by changing temperatures. Staying vigilant all year round in protecting your immune system is the best approach for you and your baby.
Your Baby’s Immune System
The immune system development of a baby is pretty dramatic. In fact, a study published last year in the journal Cell had one of the researchers calling it a well-choreographed dance. “It seems as if all babies follow one and the same pattern, with their immune systems responding with exactly the same sequence of dramatic changes,” said Dr. Petter Brodin. “It’s almost like a well-choreographed dance, a practiced routine.”
Changes in a newborn’s immune system have been difficult to assess because doing so has relied on samples taken from the umbilical cord immediately after birth. In this study, researchers used a new immune cell analysis technique to follow 100 premature and full-term babies for their first few weeks of life.
The study is the first of its kind to monitor the immune system in babies. “This is the first time we’ve pinned down how the human immune system adapts itself to birth and the new environment,” Dr. Brodin said.
For the future, these researchers plan to enroll more babies in their study and follow them into childhood to see which of them develop diabetes, allergies, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease.
One Way Omega-3s Might Support Immune Function
A 2013 study showed that omega-3s might boost the immune system by enhancing the functioning of immune cells. Published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, the study suggests that omega-3s EPA and DHA impart their benefits not by suppressing inflammation, but by enhancing the function of immune B-cells.
The role of white blood cells known as B-cells, which are also called B-lymphocytes, is to give the immune system the resources it needs to fight infection. The lymphocytes also include T-cells.
Your B-cells are activated when they sense a foreign invader and are responsible for rallying other cells in the body to tackle the problem. These cells move on to your blood and lymph nodes once they reach a certain level of maturity.B-cells have long memories and can produce antibodies against those germs for months and years.
How Omega-3s Can Help Support Your Baby’s Immune System
A study conducted in 2016 lends credence to the supportive role of omega-3s during a baby’s immune system development, particularly for DHA.
Published in the late December 2016 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers made a direct correlation between the intake of omega-3s and the prevalence of wheezing disorders. Also, they found that mothers who supplemented with DHA had babies who got over colds faster than those who mothers did not take DHA.
The children investigated in this study came from the Copenhagen Prospective Studies on Asthma in Childhood (COPSAC) cohort. Their mission is to understand the origins of asthma, eczema, and allergy in young children and to translate this into clinical practice to improve disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
For this study, researchers gave 736 pregnant women at 24 weeks of gestation 2.4 grams of omega-3s EPA and DHA from fish oil or an olive oil placebo. Neither the investigators nor the participants were aware who got which treatment during follow-up for the first 3 years of the children’s lives, after which there was a 2-year follow-up period during which only the investigators were unaware of group assignments.
The primary goal of the study was to assess persistent wheeze or asthma. The secondary endpoints included lower respiratory tract infections, asthma exacerbations, eczema, and allergic sensitization.
A total of 695 children were included in the trial, and more than 95% completed the 3-year, double-blind follow-up period. The risk of persistent wheeze or asthma in the treatment group was 17%, versus 24% in the control group, corresponding to a relative reduction of almost 31%.
Further analysis suggested that the effect was strongest in the children of women whose blood levels of EPA and DHA were in the lowest third of the trial population at randomization: 17.5% versus 34%. In other words, children whose mothers had the lowest blood levels of EPA and DHA were at the highest risk for wheezing and asthma.
Analyses of secondary endpoints showed that supplementation with omega-3s EPA and DHA was associated with a reduced risk of infections of the lower respiratory tract, but there was no statistically significant association between supplementation and asthma exacerbations, eczema, or allergic sensitization.
These findings led researchers to believe that supplementation with omega-3s EPA and DHA in the third trimester of pregnancy can reduce the risk of persistent wheeze or asthma and infections of the lower respiratory tract in offspring by 30%.
For a 2011 study published in Pediatrics, researchers gave pregnant Mexican women 400 mg of DHA daily or placebo from 18-22 weeks’ gestation through birth. In infants aged 1, 3, and 6 months, caregivers reported the occurrence of common illness symptoms in the preceding 15 days.
At the end of the study, researchers evaluated data available from more than 800 infants at 1, 3, and 6 months of age. The occurrence of specific illness symptoms did not differ between groups; however, the occurrence of a combined measure of cold symptoms was lower in the DHA group at 1 month.
At 1 month, the DHA group also experienced 26%, 15%, and 30% shorter duration of cough, phlegm, and wheezing, respectively. At 3 months, infants in the DHA group spent 14% less time ill. At 6 months, infants in the DHA group experienced 20%, 13%, 54%, 23%, and 25% shorter duration of fever, nasal secretion, difficulty breathing, rash, and “other illness,” respectively.
What this showed is that DHA supplementation during pregnancy decreased the occurrence of colds in children at 1 month and influenced illness symptom duration at 1, 3, and 6 months.
The research on omega-3s and their impact on the immune system is still in its infancy, especially compared to health areas like heart, brain and eye health, as well as in pregnancy. Still, the benefits of prenatal DHA supplementation beyond immune function have been well established, especially in relation to preterm birth risk and infant brain and eye development. To help you decide if DHA supplementation is right for you, talk to your doctor. In the meantime, here are some great tips for getting more DHA in your diet.