Published on August 26, 2023
Study during pregnancy shows DHA supplements resulted in changes in the types of immune cells and may improve immune function in babies
- Breast feeding is believed to be the best source of nutrition for newborns and it also contains immune cells, antibodies, and other factors that provide protection during infancy. Breastmilk also contains omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexanoic acid (DHA), important for the infant’s developing immune system, however, the content of DHA in breastmilk is dependent on the mother’s diet.
- One study found a higher percentage of CD4+ naïve T cells with lower IFN-gamma production in both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in infants whose mothers got more DHA, indicating lower levels of inflammation which limits tissue damage during infections and a better ability to fight off viral infections
- Over 80% of women in the GrassrootsHealth cohort had an Omega-3 Index below the recommended 8%
August is National Breastfeeding Month!
Breast milk is considered the best source of nutrition for infants except for its lack of certain nutrients – specifically vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. This is not due to an inherent defect in breast milk but rather to insufficient vitamin D and omega-3 intake in the mother. In several previous posts, we have shared much about how getting enough vitamin D during pregnancy and breastfeeding can affect maternal and infant health. Today, we will share research on why it is important to also ensure adequate omega-3 intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Mom’s Omega-3 Intake Affects Baby’s Immune Function
Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in immune system function. They are incorporated into the cell membrane of immune cells, as well as many other cells, and are metabolized to eicosanoids, a group of signalling molecules important for controlling levels of inflammation. Increased intake also increases the EPA and DHA content of immune cell membranes, mainly by displacing arachidonic acid (AA, an omega-6 fatty acid), and become the substrate for the enzymes that make eicosanoids. EPA- and DHA-derived eicosanoids are less potent inducers of inflammation (compared to those derived from AA ) and produce anti-inflammatory compounds that “turn off” the inflammatory response. EPA and DHA carried to areas of inflammation are metabolized to produce several types of mediators that result in the resolution of inflammation (resolvins, protectins, and maresins). EPA and DHA have an overall anti-inflammatory effect, as shown in a recently reviewed paper on DHA and inflammatory markers.
The Omega-3 Index measures the amount of EPA and DHA in the membranes of red blood cells as a percentage of total fatty acids, with a target of 8% or higher. Learn more about the Omega-3 Index and how it relates to many health outcomes throughout life here.
Breast Milk Contains Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important For Protecting Babies
Breast feeding is believed to be the best source of nutrition for newborns and it also contains immune cells, antibodies, and other factors that provide protection during infancy. Breastmilk also contains omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexanoic acid (DHA), important for the infant’s developing immune system. The content of DHA in breastmilk is dependent on the mother’s diet. The Western diet is high in omega-6 fatty acids and relatively low in omega-3’s. In fact, it has been recommended that intake of DHA should be 200-300 mg per day during pregnancy and lactation to provide adequate DHA for the growing baby.
A paper by Granot et al. investigated whether DHA supplementation during pregnancy and lactation affected immune cell numbers and function in babies breastfed up to 4 months of age.
The Study Design:
- 60 pregnant women 20-35 years old in at least their 3rd pregnancy were randomized to either the treatment or control group
- Treatment group received 400 mg of DHA each day in softgel capsules
- DHA supplements were taken daily from the first trimester through pregnancy and lactation up to 4 months after the baby was born
- Diet of all the mothers included at least 2 servings of fish per week
What Did They Find?
Although total lymphocyte numbers (T cells and B cells) did not change, the number of T cell subsets (discussed in a previous post) were affected by DHA supplements.
In the DHA-supplemented group:
- Numbers of CD8+ cytotoxic T cells were lower with a higher proportion of memory CD8+ (CD45RO+) T cells
- There was a higher ratio of CD4+/CD8+ T cells
- The number of naïve T cells (CD45RA+) was significantly higher
- IFN-gamma, an inflammatory cytokine, produced by CD4+ and CD8+ T cells was markedly lower
What Does This Mean?
A higher percentage of CD4+ naïve T cells with lower IFN-gamma production in both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells indicates lower levels of inflammation which limits tissue damage during infections. Memory CD8+ T cells play a role in fighting off viral infections and higher levels may improve that response.
This research suggests that DHA supplementation during pregnancy and breast feeding may result in an improved immune response of the infant.
83% of Women in the GrassrootsHealth Cohort Were Low in Omega-3s
Since mid-2017, GrassrootsHealth has offered a home blood spot test for the Omega-3 Index. Evidence suggests that achieving an Omega-3 Index of at least 8% is optimal for health whereas an index of less than 4% is deficient, particularly as it relates to cardiovascular disease.
A 2020 analysis of GrassrootsHealth data showed that, among the 2,777 participants who had tested their Omega-3 Index, the average index was 5.7%. Almost one-fifth (18%) of participants had an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher; 27% had an index between 6.0% and 7.9%, 45% had an index between 4.0% and 5.9%, and 10% had an index less than 4%.
Women were less likely to have an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher. The percent of males with an Omega-3 Index of at least 8% was slightly higher than females (21% vs. 17%), as was the percent using an omega-3 supplement (73% vs. 69%) and the percent who ate fatty fish (69% vs. 62%).
Nutrients Work Together for Immune and Overall Health!
Could getting more of certain nutrients help to decrease your levels of inflammation, and improve your immune response? Find out by testing your vitamin D, omega-3s, magnesium and other essential elements (including copper and zinc), as well as your inflammation levels, with the Immune Boost Panel test kit offered by GrassrootsHealth. Measuring levels is the only way to know if you are supporting your immune system and whether additional changes should be made, with supplementation, dietary changes, or both.
Create Your Custom Home Test Kit
Measure your vitamin D and Omega-3 levels at home as part of the D*action project! To know if you are getting enough, make sure you test today!
You can also measure your:
- Vitamin D
- Magnesium PLUS Essential and Toxic Elements
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Type 1 Diabetes Autoantibodies
Did you know that each of the above can be measured at home using a simple blood spot test? As part of our ongoing research project, you can order your home blood spot test kit to get your levels, followed by education and steps to take to help you reach your optimal target levels. Start by enrolling and ordering your kit to measure each of the above important markers, and make sure you are getting enough of each to support better mood and wellbeing!
Create your custom home test kit today. Take steps to improve the status of each of these measurements to benefit your overall health. With measurement you can then determine how much is needed and steps to achieve your goals. You can also track your own intakes, symptoms and results to see what works best for YOU.
How Can You Use this Information for YOUR Health?
Having and maintaining healthy vitamin D and other nutrient levels can help improve your health now and for your future. Measuring is the only way to make sure you are getting enough!
STEP 1 Order your at-home blood spot test kit to measure vitamin D and other nutrients of concern to you, such as omega-3s, magnesium, essential and toxic elements (zinc, copper, selenium, lead, cadmium, mercury); include hsCRP as a marker of inflammation or HbA1c for blood sugar health
STEP 2 Answer the online questionnaire as part of the GrassrootsHealth study
STEP 3 Using our educational materials and tools (such as our dose calculators), assess your results to determine if you are in your desired target range or if actions should be taken to get there
STEP 4 After 3-6 months of implementing your changes, re-test to see if you have achieved your target level(s)