Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be able to reduce their chances of having postpartum depression and improve their baby's neurological development by consuming an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, claims David Kyle, Ph.D., the US director of the Mother and Child Foundation. DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in fish like tuna and salmon as well as in algae.
While speaking at the 223rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society, Kyle noted that 15-20% of women in the US who give birth will have postpartum depression. "We believe that the high incidence of postpartum depression in the United States may be triggered by a low dietary intake of DHA," he said. According to Dr. Kyle, levels of this omega-3 fatty acid consumed by American women are lower than elsewhere in the world.
During his talk, he noted several studies which seem to back up the assertion that DHA can be beneficial to the mother as well as the child.
- Dr. Joseph Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health reported in a 1998 issue of Lancet that the higher the intake of DHA was, the lower the incidence of clinical depression.
- Dr. Hibbeln reported in a 2001 meeting of the American Psychological Association that higher levels of DHA in breast milk correlated with lower incidence of postpartum depression.
- A 1997 study done by Gerrard Hornstra, Ph.D., of Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that the placenta pumps DHA from the mother to the fetus, depleting the mother's supply and leaving her more susceptible to depression.
- Dr. Craig Jensen at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, conducted a study with nursing mothers -- half given 200-milligram DHA supplements and the other half given placebos -- that showed the DHA content in the milk of the women in the supplemented group was double that of the control group. The Baylor study followed the children for two and a half years. Toddlers whose mothers had received DHA supplementation tested significantly better on standard neurological motor function tests than the toddlers whose mothers had the placebo.
So compelling is the evidence regarding DHA and infant health that the FDA has already approved the addition of DHA to infant formulas sold in the US. Early in 2002, two manufacturers announced plans to introduce a DHA-enhanced formula to the US market. The DHA approved for use is an oil derived from micro algae.
Kyle recommends that mothers who want to increase their own intake of DHA should take one of the dietary supplements widely available or increase their consumption of fish.
AGFD 28 Non-technical Summary
Division: Division of Agricultural & Food Chemistry
Title: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): a new functional food ingredient for maternal nutrition
David J. Kyle
Mother and Child Foundation
6430 Dobbin Rd
Columbia, MD 21045