As a public health nurse, my mother taught sex education and worked with many unwed young mothers. During my teenage years, she gave me the impression that ‘just looking at a boy’ might make me pregnant.
My whole attitude towards fertility changed in medical school while I was working at a fertility clinic. During this time, I saw many couples struggling to have children. I also learned that a woman’s fertile period decreases through her 30s. By age 40, a woman has just a 5% chance of getting pregnant each month, compared to the 20% chance of her 30-year-old counterpart (1).
In an age where more women are waiting to have children, these odds can sound daunting. But there’s also good news on the fertility front, particularly with the role omega-3 fatty acids may play in extending our reproductive potential.
Omega-3s have long been known to promote fertility, especially in men. The long-chained DHA fatty acids have been found in high concentrations in sperm, suggesting that the DHA molecules are important for the viability, maturity, and functional characteristics of those cells (2). In addition, studies have found that higher levels of omega-3s correlate with improved sperm morphology and motility (3, 4).
Besides the benefits for the sperm, omega-3 fatty acids also appear to be helpful for female-related fertility issues. One exciting 2012 study on mice concluded that a lifelong consumption of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids could prolong reproductive function into an advanced maternal age. The researchers also found that a short-term treatment of omega-3 fatty acids could help improve egg (oocyte) quality (5).
This is one of the few studies that has specifically examined the omega-3 molecules role in age-related fertility issues. Looking at the broader base of omega-3 research, however, there’s more information.
Fertility demands that both the sperm and egg are healthy.
For instance, one 2015 study looked at the relationship between EPA and DHA omega-3s and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) levels. As women approach menopause, their FSH levels increase. In fact, physicians will often measure the hormone to determine how close a woman is to menopause. In the 2015 study, the researchers found that in normal weight women, supplementing with 4 grams of EPA/DHA decreased the FSH levels. The researchers noted that this relationship between the omega-3s and the FSH hormone was intriguing, especially since it helped build the case that higher intakes of omega-3 could influence reproductive lifespan (6).
Beyond the age issue, omega-3 fatty acids may help lessen chronic inflammation-related fertility problems. For instance, women with high levels of EPA omega-3 were less likely to have endometriosis compared to women with low EPA levels (7).
Of course, once a woman becomes pregnant, continuing to get omega-3 fatty acids is crucial for the health of both mother and child. We know that omega-3s positively affect the neurodevelopment of the fetus (8). Numerous studies have also shown that getting enough omega-3 reduces the risk of early preterm delivery, one of the leading causes of infant mortality worldwide (9).
While the research above illustrates the importance omega-3s should have in our diet, most women don’t get enough either before or during pregnancy.
Only 19% of Americans eat the recommended 2 servings of fish per week (10). And – more disturbingly – a Canadian study found that pregnant women only obtained 117 mg of EPA and DHA through their diet (10). This number is inadequate for all women, pregnant or not.
During pregnancy, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is crucial for the health
of both mother and child.
The FDA recently pulled back its recommendation about limiting fish consumption during pregnancy — a wise decision since it is difficult to get the omega-3s needed without fish or fish oil supplements. The conversion from plant-based ALA omega-3 to the marine-sourced EPA is very low – only around 0.2% – 9%, depending on the individual and their diet (10). For DHA (the type of marine-sourced omega-3 best associated with neurodevelopment), the conversion rate is even lower.
One Danish survey illustrated just how important it can be for women to get enough omega-3. The survey showed that high-risk pregnant women consuming less than 150 mg of omega-3 fatty acids a day were more likely to deliver prematurely. For those who did not eat seafood or take an omega-3 supplement, the premature birth rate was 7.1%, compared with 1.9% for those who ate fish regularly (10).
For women who decide to go the supplement route, it is important to keep in mind what type of omega-3s your product contains. Many prenatal supplements only contain DHA omega-3. While getting enough DHA is a step in the right direction, it’s important not to neglect the other members of the omega-3 family. After all, the EPA omega-3 helps transfer the DHA across the placenta and into the fetus (10). In other words, the DHA depends on the EPA to carry out its full function.
When looking at supplements, choose an omega-3 product that delivers the full spectrum of the omega-3 family. This will ensure both mother and child experience all the benefits of these fatty acids. And also, make sure you get an omega-3 product that’s fresh with demonstrably low oxidation levels, like Omega Cure® fish oil. Rancid fish oil is not beneficial for anyone, and especially not pregnant women.
1. Age & Fertility: A Guide for Patients. American Society for Reproductive Medicine. 2012.
2. Lenzi A et al. Fatty acid composition of spermatozoa and immature germ cells. Molecular Human Reproduction, vol. 6, no. 3, pp 226-231. 2000.
3. Reza Safarinejad M and Safarinejad S. The roles of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in idiopathic male infertility. Asian Journal of Andrology. 2012; 14(4):514-515. doi:10.1038/aja.2012.46.
4. Kirby, Jane. High saturated fat intake ‘damages’ sperm. The Independent. October 27, 2010.
5. Nehra D et al. Prolonging the female reproductive lifespan and improving egg quality with dietary omega-3 fatty acids. Aging Cell. 2012 Dec; 11(6):1046-54. doi: 10.1111/acel.12006. Epub October 19, 2012.
6. Al-Safi ZA et al. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation lowers serum FSH in normal weight but not obese women. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol 101, issue 1. doi: 10.1210/jc.2015-2913. Epub November 2, 2015.
7. Hopeman MM et al. Serum Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Endometriosis. Reproductive Sciences. 2015 Sep; 22(9):1083-7. doi: 10.1177/1933719114565030. Epub Dec 23, 2014.
8. Coletta JM et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2010; 3(4):163-171.
9. Kar S et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids in prevention of early preterm delivery: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized studies. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology. 2016 Mar; 198:40-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2015.11.033. Epub Nov 30, 2015.
10. Greenberg JA et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy. Review in Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2008 Fall; 1(4): 162–169.