Can Maternal Fish Oil Supplementation Prevent Childhood Asthma?

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 6.3 million children in the United States who currently have asthma. Consisting of airway inflammation and constriction, asthma has become one of the most frequent causes of chronic absenteeism. Children with asthma are at an increased risk for complications from many childhood illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), flu, and other upper respiratory viruses. As one of the major health issues in the U.S., many researchers have been focusing on determining what causes some children to develop asthma and how to prevent it.

A December 2016 study has indicated that a mom’s omega-3 consumption during pregnancy may play a role in preventing the development of asthma in the child.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fat and can be found in seafood such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines or plant-based foods like flaxseed, soybean, canola oil, chia seeds, and walnuts. Considered a healthy fat, omega-3’s are linked to lowered risk of several inflammatory illnesses like heart disease, some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, maternal intake of omega-3’s has been shown to improve fetal neurodevelopment.

The 2016 study, looking into maternal intake of omega-3’s and offspring’s risk of developing asthma, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers lead by Hans Bisgaard, M.D., assessed whether maternal supplementation of n−3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) reduced persistent wheeze and asthma in their children. In the double blind study, over 700 pregnant women were assigned either 2.4 g of n−3 LCPUFA (fish oil) or placebo (olive oil) per day, and their children were followed for the first 3 years of their lives and again at 5 years of age.

They found that the children whose mother’s consumed the n−3 LCPUFA in the third trimester of pregnancy were approximately 31 percent less likely to develop chronic wheeze or asthma. Additionally, researchers found a decreased risk of respiratory infections of the lower respiratory tract by approximately one third.

Before jumping on the fish oil bandwagon, it is important that pregnant women talk with their physician about supplementation with fish oils and which are safe. One issue of concern is that many fatty fish can contain mercury. One way to limit that risk is to not consume fish sources of omega-3’s more than three times a week and to follow the Food Drug Administration’s advice about eating fish during pregnancy, which includes avoiding high mercury fish like mackerel, swordfish, and shark. Plant sources of omega-3’s may be a better choice as they do not have the issue of mercury contamination. When supplementing, consider the American Pregnancy Association’s recommendations for how to find a good, quality sourced fish oil.

The American diet is greatly lacking in these quality omega-3’s, so maintaining a diet that has adequate levels and considering supplementation can be a good way to improve overall health and may even be beneficial in preventing asthma. Future research will be needed to see whether these positive outcomes for children whose mother’s took fish oil supplements can be repeated.

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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).