You’ve probably been told to take a fish oil supplement at some point, but do you really know why it’s so important to include this in your daily routine?
Fish oil is rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids EPA and DHA. Before we can unpack the benefits of fish oil, it’s helpful to look at what exactly fat is, and the different types of fat. In general, healthy fats actually help the body become more sensitive to insulin, decrease the body’s production of glucose, calm inflammation and provide the building blocks for a variety of hormones; increased insulin sensitivity and lowered inflammation help to improve fertility (1)! As with most foods, we are concerned with quality and type of fat in the diet. Let’s look at the three main types of fats: trans fats, saturated fats and unsaturated fats.
Trans fats come primarily from fried foods, processed foods, and bakery items with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, or margarine. Because of their inflammatory nature, trans fats should be limited as much as possible.
Saturated fats come from red meat, whole milk and dairy products, coconut products; these fats are typically in solid form at room temperature and are healthful when they are from quality, grass-fed sources.
Unsaturated fats can further be broken down into two groups: poly-unsaturated fats (things like legumes, walnuts, fatty fish) and mono-unsaturated fats (olive/olive oils, nut oils, nuts, peanuts/peanut butter, avocado, seeds).
Within the group of poly-unsaturated fat, there are fats called Essential Fatty Acids. Omega 3 and Omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because they are essential for human development and health but must be obtained through our diet, since, unlike other fatty acids, they cannot be made by the human body (2). Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio in our diets should be 1:1; however, in our SAD diet, many people’s ratios are between 15:1 and 17:1. This overabundance of Omega 6 (think vegetable oils, fast foods, chips, pastries, and bakery items) is inflammatory to humans. Therefore, it’s important to watch our intake of Omega 6 sources and try to obtain good sources of Omega 3s. You may be asking yourself, what exactly are Omega 3s, anyway?
The three main Omega 3s are ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA (or alpha-linolenic acid) is found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, leafy vegetables and some grass-fed animals. EPA and DHA, however, mainly come from fish, which is why obtaining these nutrients from high quality supplement or eating fish is so important. Since many women choose to shy away from fish during pregnancy due to the concerns about mercury, being able to get EPA and DHA from a quality supplement is key. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, compromising by taking a fish oil supplement while trying to get pregnant through nursing can help tremendously.
Benefits of Fish Oil
In general, DHA and EPAs from marine sources are integral to properly functioning cell membranes and cell receptors; cardiovascular health; reducing inflammation; promoting skin, hair, and joint health; and neurological health. These fatty acids are also the building blocks of hormones and help to regulate hormonal processes, which is obviously a good thing during the Motherhood Transition.
During pregnancy, research has shown that increased intake of EPA and DHA can prevent pre-term labor, increase birth weight, and reduce the risk of preeclampsia (3). In addition, these fatty acids are essential to the formation of new tissues, which occurs at an elevated rate during pregnancy and fetal development. Specifically, DHA and EPA are essential for the growth and development of the baby’s brain and other parts of the nervous system. A new British study has shown that women who regularly obtained EPA and DHA throughout their pregnancy had children with superior fine motor, social, and communication skills in the first 4 years of life, and by age 7 or 8, had fewer behavioral problems and were less likely to have below average performance on verbal and performance IQ tests (4).
Because these fatty acids are so critical in the development of the fetus, baby will take what it needs from mom. If we don’t have adequate EPA and DHA in our diet, it will affect our ability to recover in the postpartum time. In fact, Omega 3 deficiency may increase the risk for postpartum depression. Therefore, it’s super important to not allow our bodies to be depleted of these crucial nutrients. Plus, since baby still gets critical EPA and DHA from breastmilk for his or her development, keep taking your fish oil while breastfeeding (and beyond!). Try to get a minimum of 500 – 1000 mg/day Omega 3 (EPA and DHA combined). You may find that this requires taking more than the recommended dosage on the label.
How to Pick a good Fish Oil
It feels like there are thousands of fish oil options out there, and it can be daunting to pick one that you trust, especially since these supplements usually aren’t cheap. So, be an informed buyer, and don’t be afraid to ask the supplement company questions! Here are some tips while shopping:
Many fish oil supplements come in the form of ethyl-ester, as this can up the potency of the product. However, making sure that the fish oil is in the triglyceride form is super important. This is because the triglyceride form is what our bodies are used to digesting and absorbing. If you don’t know, ask the company!
You want to make sure that the fish source is pure and fresh, so oil from small, freshwater fish with smaller risk of mercury and other contaminants like sardines and anchovies are best. A certification from a third party like Safe Quality Food Institute (SQF) certification or National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) is great. NSF has a new app and website called Certified for Sport where you can look up supplements to see if they meet their standards (http://www.nsfsport.com/) You can also ask to see a company’s Certificate of Analysis (COA) to help assure you the supplement is safe.
Sustainability is also an important factor in this world of ever-increasing overfishing, so a certification by a third party, like the Environmental Defense Fund or Marine Stewardship Council, is awesome.
As you can probably imagine, rancid fish oil is no bueno. Fish oil is susceptible to oxidation, and oxidation causes inflammation. Therefore, make sure there’s no rotten fishy odor, aftertaste, or fish burps. To prevent your fish oil from rancidity, keep them in a cool, dark, airproof container; keeping them in the refrigerator can also help.
(1)Chavarro, Jorge E., Dr. and Dr. Walter C. Willett. Fertility Diet. McGraw Hill, 2008. 75.
(2)Abu-Saad, Kathleen and Drora Fraser. “Maternal Nutrition and Birth Outcomes.” Epidemiologic Reviews, 32 (2010): 5-25. p 15-16.
(3)Omega 3 Fish Oil and Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association. http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/omega-3-fish-oil/
(4)Chavarro and Willett. Fertility Diet. 75