Cod Liver Oil During Pregnancy Makes Babies Smarter
Women who take cod-liver oil during pregnancy and the first three months of breast-feeding are likely to have more intelligent children, according to a study published in Pediatrics (2003; 111:e39–44). This report adds to a growing body of evidence that dietary intake of a specific fatty acid present in fish oils (docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) is needed to promote optimal brain development.
In the new study, pregnant women were randomly assigned to receive 2 teaspoons per day of either cod-liver oil or corn oil, beginning in week 18 of pregnancy and continuing until 3 months after delivery. When the children were four years old, they took a standardized intelligence test. Compared with the children whose mothers had taken corn oil, those whose mothers had taken cod-liver oil scored significantly higher on the test.
Cod-liver oil and other commercially available fish oil preparations are potent sources of DHA, which is needed by the body for normal development of the brain and of visual function. This omega-3 fatty acid can be manufactured in the body from a precursor molecule, alpha-linolenic acid, which is present in some vegetable oils and nuts, and in small quantities in certain other foods. However, it is not clear whether infants have the capability to manufacture as much DHA as their rapidly developing nervous systems need. Moreover, alpha-linolenic acid tends to be in short supply in the typical Western diet, potentially rendering it even more difficult for infants to obtain an adequate supply of DHA. Therefore, a dietary supply of this fatty acid (through the mother) seems to be important for the growing fetus and infant.
For those who are not breast-feeding, it is important to note that many infant formulas do not contain DHA, although some companies are now offering formulas that do. While some studies have found that DHA-supplemented formulas improve infant development, other studies have failed to show any advantage of adding DHA to the formula.
Two teaspoons of cod-liver oil contain approximately 8,000 to 10,000 IU of vitamin A. Preliminary studies have suggested that women who take more than 10,000 IU of vitamin A per day during pregnancy are at increased risk of having a child with certain birth defects. However, other studies have failed to find any adverse effect at that level of vitamin A intake, and one study actually found a protective effect against birth defects. Until more is known, pregnant women should err on the side of caution, and limit their intake of cod-liver oil to the two teaspoons per day that were used in the new study.
Alan R. Gaby, MD, an expert in nutritional therapies, testified to the White House Commission on CAM upon request in December 2001. Dr. Gaby served as a member of the Ad-Hoc Advisory Panel of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. He is the author of Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima, 1994), and co-author of The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Edition (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), Clinical Essentials Volume 1 and 2 (Healthnotes, 2000), and The Patient’s Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999). A former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, in Kenmore, WA, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition, Dr. Gaby is the Chief Medical Editor for Healthnotes, Inc.
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