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Information about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids has become increasingly more common. This essential nutrient has many health benefits, and could be helpful in treating postpartum depression. Pregnant women should include seafood in their diets, but are often scared off by reports of pollutants. Mercury and PCB contamination has been largely overblown, and many authorities on the subject are promoting the many health benefits of fish in the diet.
What is DHA?
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is an omega-3 fatty acid. It is an essential fatty acid, meaning we need to get it from our food. Another fatty acid, Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA), is found in flaxseed and canola oil. The body converts ALA to DHA, but not very efficiently. Those who have diets higher in saturated fats convert about 4% of the ALA to DHA. As for those who consume mostly vegetable oils, that conversion is reduced by at least half. The most efficient way to get adequate levels of DHA is by adding or increasing the amount of fish in the diet.
DHA is vital for many functions of the body. It is needed to maintain normal brain functions. A lack of DHA can bring about a number of health-related issues, both mental and physical. A low level of DHA in the body has been commonly found in women suffering from postpartum depression.
How Does Pregnancy and Lactation Affect DHA Levels?
DHA is essential for fetal brain and eye development. Breast milk also contains DHA, so combined with the demands of a developing fetus, lactation also reduces the amount of this essential fatty acid’s availability to the mother.
Plenty of DHA in the diet is extremely important to the health of both a mother and her baby. A diet rich in seafood has been shown to be of great benefit to a mother’s mental health, both before and after the birth of her child.
How Can Pregnant and Postpartum Women Avoid Low Levels of DHA?
The balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is essential for good physiological health. Unfortunately, today we have many foods that are heavy in omega-6 fatty acids. You will be hard-pressed to find a processed food that doesn’t contain some form of vegetable oil, which is high in omega-6.
What About Mercury and PCB Contamination in Fish and Other Seafood?
It has been suggested that studies linking seafood consumption to high levels of mercury in the blood have been unfounded. A new way to measure seafood safety, called the Selenium Health Benefit Value (SeHBV), may be a better way to determine whether or not certain breeds of fish are safe to consume. The trace mineral selenium binds to mercury. When they connect, they form a new material that is not easily absorbed by the body. Fish that are high in selenium include light tuna, salmon, and shrimp.
PCBs are toxic chemical wastes. They are found in small amounts in fish, but more so in meats, dairy, and vegetables.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the benefits of moderate fish consumption outweigh the risks. There are, of course, species of fish that should be avoided. Swordfish, shark, and tarpon are a few species that are high in mercury, but low in selenium.
Pregnancy and lactation both deplete the body of the essential fatty acid DHA. Since low levels of DHA have been found to be common among those who suffer from depression, consumption of seafood or supplemental fish oil may be helpful in prevention. Pregnant and nursing women should continue to include certain fish in their diets while being mindful of omega-6 fatty acid intake. It is much safer to consume oily fish than it is to remove them from the diet altogether.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only; it should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his/her health should contact a licensed medical professional.