Pregnancy, Weight Gain and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Carol J. Lammi-Keefe

Pregnancy – a normal, naturally occurring state for women – is sometimes described by scientists, physicians and health care providers as “inflammatory,” a term usually associated with disease. This inflammatory state is necessary for a baby to develop normally, as long as it is carefully monitored and controlled.

Hormonal changes that occur in a woman during pregnancy induce a low level of inflammation. Alterations in the body’s response to the inflammation act to push nutrients vital for the infant’s development across the placenta. It is a sophisticated and necessary biological response to ensure that growth and developmental requirements of the fetus are met.

The mother’s state of health plays an important role in her successful pregnancy. Women who are overweight or who gain too much weight during pregnancy may have decreased ability to handle blood glucose (sugar), and this can be accompanied by an increased state of inflammation, which is evidenced by more inflammatory molecules circulating in the blood.

Women who enter pregnancy overweight or who gain too much weight during pregnancy may further decrease an already lessened ability of their bodies to produce enough insulin or to respond to insulin, which is the hormone that mitigates blood sugar. Less insulin or a lessened response to the insulin produced can create a more inflammatory response. As a result, the developing fetus is exposed to excess glucose and fats. The long-term consequence for these fetuses is that they may exhibit adult diseases as early as childhood.

Scientists and researchers in the past decade determined that omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water marine fish – such as salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna and sardines – are important for infant development, particularly the development of the baby’s brain and eyes. More recent research has found that other molecules, resolvins and protectins, made from these fatty acids act as anti-inflammatory mediators to help protect against inflammation. The resolvins and protectins are simple structures made from the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 

Just how resolvins and protectins neutralize and protect against inflammatory response in pregnancies complicated by overweight or excessive weight gain is not known. One aspect to answering the question is determining the role diet plays during pregnancy in invoking a response of these anti-inflammatory lipid mediators.

Investigators in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences and at Woman’s Hospital, Baton Rouge, collaborating with researchers at the LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, in a clinical trial starting this fall, will examine how resolvins and protectins are related to inflammation. They will also investigate the mother’s ability to handle glucose during pregnancy and if these molecules are related to infant adiposity (or fatness) at birth.

It is unknown for now, but something as simple as a diet rich in EPA and DHA might lead to healthier, happier babies.

Carol J. Lammi-Keefe is the Alma Beth Clark Professor in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences.

(This article was published in the fall 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

12/4/2013 9:29:30 PM
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