Pregnancy Brain” may be First Sign of EFA Deficiency

“Pregnancy brain” is a condition whereby expectant mothers experience short term memory loss and forgetfulness that often persists into the postpartum and breastfeeding period. Given widespread fatty acid deficiency in the standard Western diet, along with the fact that the brain is built on fat, it is incumbent upon us to consider adequate and optimal fats in the prevention and treatment of “pregnancy brain”. It also stands to reason that pregnancy brain, if left unchecked, may be the first and most benign symptom of a deficiency, which could later prove to have much greater consequence.According to Michael A. Schimdt, PhD (a NASA researcher), “To achieve adequate levels for brain development, the baby essentially robs the mother of these fatty acids by taking them from the placental blood.”  

Growing evidence supports the importance of supplementing with EFAs during pregnancy especially Omega 3. There are some Fatty Acids that we need to ingest (take in via food or supplementation) as the human body is unable to create it. These Fatty Acids are however essential to the development of body – hence the term ‘essential fatty acid’ – as they are essential to the body. The human body can however, synthesize ingested long chain fatty acids into other, short chain fatty acids like EPA, DHA, ALA etc.  EPA and DHA ( Docosahexaenoic Acid ) and the Arachidonic Acid (ARA) for essential for brain and eye development from Omega 3, Omega 6, etc. The January 2003 Pediatrics published data linking better intelligence and higher IQ scores to DHA supplementation. The World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, British Nutrition Foundation and Children’s Health Foundation have also recommended DHA inclusion in infant formula.

There is evidence from published clinical trials that women with higher DHA intakes or by way of supplementation during pregnancy, ranging up to 1100 mg DHA (plus 800 mg EPA) daily, gave birth to infants with higher cognitive development scores and young children with higher mental processing scores up to 4 years of age.  There is also published evidence that mothers with higher intakes of DHA during pregnancy along with higher corresponding levels in their body give birth to infants with improved sleep patterns. Furthermore, supplementation during pregnancy may enhance infant immunity (better allergy protection) and reduce risk of allergic disease.

In addition, higher intakes of EFAs during pregnancy (levels as low as 150 mg/day) have been implicated with increased birth weights, moderately prolonged gestation and reduced risk of preterm delivery. Finally, a higher dietary intake of EFA during pregnancy to support brain development of the baby in the womb has been associated with a great availability to the mother herself and a lesser risk of postpartum depression.

If not attended to, EFA status in the mother will continue to decline throughout the breastfeeding period, with repercussions to both her breastfeeding baby and subsequent children. Essential fatty acid deficiency has been shown to play a key role in many growth and developmental difficulties such as: learning, behavioral, nervous and immune related disorders.

Pregnant women who are deficient in essential fats, as well as mothers who have birthed more than one child (without adequate time in between to replenish their EFA status), may be more vulnerable to prolonged depression and disease later in life. It seems plausible that the wide spread prevalence of postpartum depression could be due at least in part to EFA deficiency. It is well established that essential fats play a substantial role in the prevention and treatment of depression. Chronic deficiencies originating during this critical time period may also explain why women tend to experience far more depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and autoimmune disease than men.

While “pregnancy brain” is also associated with the “amnesia” effects of the hormone oxytocin and other nutritional deficiencies, science has now shown that a pregnant woman`s brain actually shrinks in size during pregnancy, and then increases again at six months postpartum. It is likely no coincidence that this occurrence co-relates with the time when many women stop or decrease breastfeeding, thus eliminating or reducing the strain on the mother`s EFA stores. Since we know that 60% of the human brain is composed of fat and that a woman’s reserves are most strained during the childbearing years, we have to at least consider essential fats as a significant contributing piece of the “pregnancy brain” puzzle.

The cause and occurrence of “pregnancy brain” and the potential consequences of declining EFA status in women of childbearing years is an important topic that warrants further investigation. Due to the fact that it is so common, “pregnancy brain” has been mostly overlooked as a normal part of an otherwise healthy pregnancy. On the other hand, it may point to the likelihood that, modern mothers may need to attend to their essential fatty acid status through better diet and/or supplementation both during and after pregnancy – especially while breast feeding.

References:

Birch, E.E., et al. A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. 42: 174-181, 2000.

Glomset, J.A. Role of docosahexaenoic acid in neuronal plasma membranes. Sci STKE. 321: 6, 2006.

Litman, B. J., et al . The role of docosahexaenoic acid containing phospholipids in modulating G protein-coupled signaling pathways : visual transduction. J. Mol. Neurosci. 16(2-3):237-242, 2001.

O’Brien, J.S., and Sampson, L. Fatty acid and fatty aldehyde composition of the major brain lipids in normal human gray matter, white matter, and myelin. J. Lipid Res. 6: 545-551, 1965.

Salem, N. Jr., et al . Mechanism of action of docosahexaenoic acid in the nervous system. Lipids. 36(9):945-959, 2001.

SanGiovanni, J. P., and Chew, E. Y. The role of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in health and disease of the retina. Progress in Retinal and Eye Research. 24:87-138, 2005.

Stilwell, W., and Wassall, S. R. Docosahexaenoic acid: membrance properties of a unique fatty acid. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. 126:1-27, 2003.

Svennerholm, L. Distribution and fatty acid composition of phosphoglycerides in normal human brain. J. Lipid Res. 9: 570-579, 1965.

Youdin, K.A., et al . Essential fatty acids and the brain: possible health implications. Int. J. Neurosci. 18: 383-399, 2000.

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