DHA is vital for early brain development and maintenance, while EPA seems to be closely related to behavior and mood. Together, both molecules provide critical neuroprotective benefits.11 These neuroprotective effects are important for the prevention of age-related brain shrinkage (cortical atrophy). Aging adults with brain shrinkage often experience memory loss, cognitive decline, and an increase in depression.12-14
Among the 16 studies comparing the effect of omega-3 PUFA treatment with that of the placebo,33,34,36,47-49,51-53,55-61 the main results revealed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 16; Hedges g, 0.372; 95% CI, 0.032-0.712; P = .03; eFigure 3 in the Supplement). The meta-analysis of the subgroup focusing on non–placebo-controlled trials also showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.399; 95% CI, 0.154-0.643; P = .001).35,50,54
What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Maternal nutrition guidelines have always stressed a diet including sufficient caloric and protein requirements, but recently fatty acids have also been deemed important (17). This is partially due to the fact that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with multiple benefits for the infant (Table 1). During pregnancy, the placenta transfers nutrients, including DHA, from the mother to the fetus (18). The amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the fetus is correlated with the amount ingested by the mother, so it is essential that the mother has adequate nutrition (19). The 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dietary guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should “consume 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week from a variety of seafood types” (12). Ingesting 8–12 oz of seafood per week, depending on the type of fish, is equivalent to ∼300–900 mg EPA+DHA per day. Unfortunately, this amount is not being met by most mothers in the United States and Canada, which means that infants many not be receiving adequate amounts of these vital nutrients in the womb (20).