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Is it Safe to Take Fish Oil While Pregnant?
Everything You Need to Know

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: June 10, 2021

Fish oil is one of the most popularly recommended to supplement the diet. Many of us who take adequate servings of oily fish per week know that Omega 3 Fatty Acids may boost our overall well-being.

In addition, some doctors advise taking fish oil while pregnant. It also supports normal pregnancy and healthy childbirth.

But is it safe? We sat down with a nutritionist and an Ob-Gyn to settle this question once and for all.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Are Fish Oil Supplements Safe for Pregnant Women?

fish oil capsules filling a bowl

Fish oil supplements are generally safe for pregnant women. Taking Omega 3 fatty acids may unlikely cause severe adverse reactions.

Fish oil is a source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids that play a critical role in the whole pregnancy cycle.

If you eat fish 2-3 times per week, you might be getting enough of what fish oil can give.

But, if you are on a typical American diet, you might consider taking fish oil supplements [1].

However, the risks of fish oil and seafood consumption during pregnancy and breastfeeding have become prevalent due to mercury toxicity.

The good news is, there are available fish and seafood in the market that are considered low in mercury. In addition, some Omega 3 Fatty Acids in fish oil supplements come from mercury-safe sources [2].

If you decide that you need fish oil when you’re pregnant, It is always best to take adequate levels or no more than what you have discussed with your physician.

What Components in Fish Oil Make It Beneficial to Pregnant Women?

pregnant woman holding her stomach and a thumbs up, and another woman pointing at a capsule smiling

There are two distinct Omega 3 Fatty Acids in fish oil vital for health in pregnant women and fetal growth Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA).

  • DHA, or Docosahexaenoic Acid

DHA is an Omega 3 fatty acid crucial for fetal brain and eye development during the third trimester [3]. Breastmilk is also a great source of DHA for optimum baby growth and cognitive development after birth.

Current dietary recommendations from Harvard Medical School suggest that women eat an average of 200 mg of DHA per day [4].

  • EPA, or Eicosapentaenoic Acid

EPA is another Omega 3 fatty acid vital in building all the structural cells within the body. It reduces maternal inflammation, where excess inflammation can lead to preterm births and increased risk of a baby developing chronic diseases in the long term.

Be sure to have no less than 220 mg of EPA per day [5].

Health Benefits of Fish Oil

Fish oil is known to have general effects on the central nervous system, eyes, brain, and heart. It maintains nerve-cell membranes, protects your vision, and promotes healthier brain cells.

Other research claims to improve inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, and certain autoimmune diseases. It is also known to pump up the immune system to provide optimal health.

Benefits in Pregnant and Lactating Women

woman pregnant forming a heart using her hands on her stomach

DHA and EPA are known to:

  • Suppress placental inflammations that cause miscarriages
  • Reduce preterm labor and delivery rates.
  • Lower the risk of preeclampsia [6].

According to research, regular intake of oily fish or fish oil supplements in pregnant women may increase birth weight and prevent postpartum depression.

There are many anti-inflammatory substitutes, but they are not safe to use as prophylactic therapy during pregnancy. However, omega 3 fatty acids are considered a safe over-the-counter measure.

During lactation, an infant gets DHA from his mother's milk. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should consume a DHA-rich diet or DHA supplements to support the growth of their children even after pregnancy.

Benefits in Fetal Development and Child Growth

Adequate EPA and DHA levels from Omega 3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids function to:

  • Help your baby sleep better inside your womb.
  • Boost the fetal neurodevelopment that comprises your baby's brain and vision

Findings from new studies associate children born from women taking fish oil supplementation during pregnancy have healthier growth from 0-6 years of life.

"This study highlights the fact that in utero exposure can have a profound effect on the fetus that lasts through childhood."

 

- Dr. Jennifer Wu (Ob-Gyne at Lenox Hill Hospital, NYC)

Research suggests that children whose mothers took fish oil supplements during pregnancy have higher bone mineral content. They also show a proportional increase in fat mass and an increase in lean mass.

Risks and Side Effects of Taking Fish Oil

woman covering her mouth, and another pregnant woman holding her stomach in pain

Research claims baby growth during pregnancy and breastfeeding does not show unfavorable effects from taking fish oil during and after pregnancy.

However, consuming more than 3 grams of fish oil every day may cause some health risks and side effects.

Taking more than the recommended dosage of fish oil may impair the development of the fetus. In addition, research suggests that both deficiency and excess intake may shorten life span, cause neural degeneration, and other disorders during adulthood [7].

Other minor side effects include:

  • Bad breath

Some people make an impression of having bad breath due to the smell of fish where the oil is extracted.

  • Upset stomach

Due to large amounts of fat content, stomach discomfort is observed primarily in people with acid reflux.

  • Diarrhea

Along with other digestive symptoms, taking fish oil supplements is also associated with loose stools.

  • Vomiting

Some people might feel sick due to gastrointestinal problems, which lead to vomiting.

  • Skin rash

People with allergic reactions to seafood might experience skin rash during fish oil supplementation.

What Types of Fish Oil Supplement are Safe During Pregnancy?

A good fish oil supplement should combine ALA, EPA, and DHA.

Get the ones that have recommended doses of DHA or how much DHA your doctor recommends for your daily needs.

One fish oil capsule may give 1,000 mg fish oil with Omega 3 fatty acids of 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA [8].

Various health organizations share opposing professional advice, but most of them agree on a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA intake per day for healthy adults. And an additional 200 mg for pregnant women.

Make sure all ingredients are high in quality and free from artificial and chemical preservatives. It is also critical to note the source of the fish to protect natural resources and check if it has undergone third-party testing with certification.

Check out the best Omega-3 supplements out on the market.

Alternative Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

glass of milk, and fish on a tray with bowls of seeds

1. Cod Liver Oil

The essential nutrients of oil extract from the cod liver provide a long list of health benefits. For example, one teaspoon generally contains 4,500 IU of vitamin A, 450 IU of vitamin D, and 26 mg of cholesterol in addition to the 890 mg of Omega 3 fats essential for pregnant women.

Oil extracted from the cod liver has high doses of the retinol form of Vitamin A. Doctors do not recommend taking supplements containing them while you are pregnant.

Fish oils and cod liver oil serve as a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids. However, the latter has more additional nutrients like Vitamin A that are not good for your baby's health. Therefore, it is best to choose only one supplement and discuss it first with your doctor.

2. Non-Fish Omega 3 Supplements

If you have a restrictive diet looking for fish oil, there are non-fish Omega 3 supplements on the market that contain high amounts of EPA and DHA for optimum health.

3. Fortified Foods

Omega 3 Fatty Acids can also be added to certain dairy products like eggs, margarine, milk, and yogurt. They are also found in juice and grains like bread, cereals, oats, and pasta.

4. Enriched Products

Some products are enhanced with Omega 3 Fatty Acids such as vitamins, protein powders, meal replacement bars, and other weight loss products.

5. Natural Dietary Sources

You get your Omega 3 Fatty Acids from consuming nuts, seeds, oils, and eating fatty fish. More on the natural fish oil sources below.

What are the Natural Dietary Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

stack of brussel sprouts and a fresh cooked salmon

A healthy source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids called ALA or Alpha-Linolenic Acids are plant derivatives.

However, they need to be converted to EPA and DHA to be usable as essential fats. Note that only an average of 1–10% of ALA converts into EPA and 0.5–5% into DHA.

The ALA from our plant diet may not be enough to give us the right amount of EPA and DHA.

Having said that, if you have a less restrictive diet, fish consumption may be recommended.

The Omega 3 Fatty Acids, EPA and DHA, are primarily obtained from seafood and fish like salmon and mackerel.

Our bodies cannot produce Omega 3 naturally, but you can eat at least two servings of oily fish per week to meet the adequate intake.

Your nutritional intake every day is crucial to give the gift of life to a healthy baby. Thus, you might want to consider consuming a diet with high Omega 3 Fatty Acids. These healthy fats are known to support normal pregnancy and the healthy development of the fetus.

Here are some fatty fish sources:

  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Light Tuna
  • Oysters
  • Sardines
  • Shellfish
  • Anchovies

And some plant sources:

  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Flaxseed Oil
  • Walnuts
  • Kidney beans
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Algae

Fish Oil During Pregnancy: Is it Safe?

There is no formal medical advice that pregnant women should take a fish oil supplement.

However, research suggests that babies born to women taking Omega 3 Fatty Acids appear healthier. They are also more likely to be given birth on time for the due date.

Since your pregnancy nutrition can affect your health and the development of your unborn child, it makes it even more significant during pregnancy to be aware of how vital an Omega 3 rich diet is for your gut.

In the long term, this is what matters most, along with eating balanced meals every day and following the prenatal vitamins your doctor recommends.


References:

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Snapshot_of_the_American_diet_Foods_out_of_balance
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2621042/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2621042/
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/fish-omega-3-fatty-acids-and-pregnancy
  5. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/eicosapentaenoic-acid-epa
  6. https://americanpregnancy.org/en/healthy-pregnancy/pregnancy-health-wellness/omega-3-fish-oil-and-pregnancy-986/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2839050/
  8. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

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