Pregnancy is a time filled with joy and hope, but also stress.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), preterm birth occurs when a baby is born too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy have been completed. In 2016, preterm birth affected more than 10% of infants born in the U.S.
Early preterm birth (less than 34 weeks) is an even more serious condition than preterm birth because the fetus is even less developed. Every week, every day that gestation can be prolonged in this situation lowers the risks of potential long-term deficits to the infant, not to mention the hospital costs, according to the March of Dimes.
Despite advances in health care today, the medical community is still uncertain as to all the reasons why preterm birth happens. However, research suggested a nutrient deficiency might be at least partly to blame.1
New Research Strengthens Connection Between DHA and Preterm Birth
Omega-3 fatty acids—especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—have been the subject of several studies during the last 30 years, with results pointing to their benefits in pregnancy, particularly for preterm and early preterm birth.
Published in 2018, a meta-analysis of 70 clinical trials on omega-3s and pregnancy could be the final word on reducing preterm birth risk.2
The 70 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) analyzed in this updated Cochrane Review involved nearly 20,000 women and asked the same question as the original review, which was published in 2006:3 “Does taking long-chain omega-3s during pregnancy from supplements or food improve pregnancy outcomes and other health outcomes of the babies and their mothers?”
The answer: strong evidence suggested when women take omega-3s during their pregnancy, they can reduce the risk of preterm (before 37 weeks) and early preterm (before 34 weeks) birth by 11% and 42%, respectively.
Unfortunately, the majority of moms-to-be are likely deficient in DHA for a variety of reasons, including avoiding or limiting fish intake or not taking a prenatal supplement that contains DHA.4 In fact, most women are only getting around 60 mg/d and about one in 14 takes a DHA supplement.5
Researchers believe assessing a mother’s DHA status could be instrumental in identifying women at increased risk for preterm birth. In other words, if a woman knows her DHA level is low, she can make the necessary dietary modifications to bring those levels into an optimal range, potentially lowering her chances of having her baby too soon.
New Research Identifies a Specific DHA Level Women Need
A September 2018 study showed that women with low blood levels of DHA in early to mid-pregnancy are 10 times more likely to deliver a baby prematurely than women with healthy DHA levels.6
The only way to know if you are getting enough of this nutrient is to test blood levels.
Research published December 2018 established the DHA level a woman likely needs to support a healthy pregnancy, including reducing her risk of early preterm birth.8 The DHA level a pregnant woman should strive for is at least 5% (i.e., 5% of her red blood cell fatty acids are DHA). DHA levels in pregnant women of 4.3% are described in the research as “very low,” with 3.5% defined as “exceedingly deficient.”9
If a woman falls below 5%, she can increase her DHA level by eating more fatty fish like salmon or taking an omega-3 supplement that contains at least 200 mg of DHA.
“In this study, we found that about 70% of women of childbearing age in the U.S. are below the 5% DHA cutoff,” said the study’s author Kristina Harris Jackson, Ph.D., R.D., a research associate at OmegaQuant Analytics. “Testing DHA levels early in pregnancy gives women the knowledge and hopefully the motivation they need to correct a low DHA level safely. A blood level target allows women to personalize how they get enough DHA during pregnancy, from either fish, fortified food or supplements. It’s hard to think of a more important biomarker than prenatal DHA levels that can be safely and easily modified and has such potentially consequential outcomes.”
Unpublished data from OmegaQuant also found that in a study of 26 pregnant women in their third trimester (when the baby needs DHA most), close to 50% had prenatal DHA blood levels less than 5%. In this population, taking 200 mg/d of DHA for 10 weeks within a highly controlled diet was enough to increase DHA levels in all the women to at least 5%.
The Prenatal DHA Test: A Powerful Motivational Tool
OmegaQuant, producer of the original omega-3 blood test, The Omega-3 Index, developed its newest test—the Prenatal DHA Test—to help women monitor their omega-3 DHA level, so they can determine how much of this important nutrient they need in order to support a full-term pregnancy.
Dietary supplement compliance can be challenging because consumers can’t “feel” the benefits of the products they’re taking, and DHA is no exception.
Offering women an objective measure of what they’re taking will not only encourage compliance, but also support the performance of a product and strengthen brand loyalty with customers.
Taking a prenatal DHA Test is an ideal way for supplement consumers to ensure the DHA they are taking is working for them and that their money is well spent.
Becky Wright is the marketing & communications director for OmegaQuant Analytics (omegaquant.com). She has 20 years of experience in the natural products industry having worked as a writer, editor, marketer and communications professional for a variety of companies, including OmniActive Health Technologies, Aker BioMarine and Rodman Media. Learn more about the importance of testing omega-3 blood levels, including DHA, at SupplySide West 2019. OmegaQuant will be offering free omega-3 testing in the GOED pavilion.
- Grieger J, Grzeskowiak L, Clifton V. “Preconception dietary patterns in human pregnancies are associated with preterm delivery.” J Nutr. 2014 Jul;144(7):1075-80. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.190686. Epub 2014 Apr 30.
- Middleton P et al. “Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Nov 15;11:CD00340 DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3.
- Makrides M, Duley L, Olsen S. “Marine oil, and other prostaglandin precursor, supplementation for pregnancy uncomplicated by pre-eclampsia or intrauterine growth restriction.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Jul 19;(3):CD003402.
- Greenberg J, Bell S, Van Ausdal W. “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy.” Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Fall; 1(4): 162–169.
- Thompson M et al. “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake by Age, Gender, and Pregnancy Status in the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003⁻2014.” Nutrients. 2019 Jan 15;11(1). pii: E177. DOI: 10.3390/nu11010177.
- Epub 2018 Aug 3.
- Olsen S et al. “Plasma Concentrations of Long Chain N-3 Fatty Acids in Early and Mid-Pregnancy and Risk of Early Preterm Birth.” EBioMedicine. 2018 Sep;35:325-333. DOI: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2018.0009.
- Jackson K, Harris W. “A Prenatal DHA Test to Help Identify Women at Increased Risk for Early Preterm Birth: A Proposal.” Nutrients. 2018 Dec; 10(12): 1933. DOI 10.3390/nu10121933
- Carlson S et al. “Assessment of DHA on reducing early preterm birth: the ADORE randomized controlled trial protocol.” BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2017 Feb 13;17(1):62. DOI: 10.1186/s12884-017-1244-5.