Friday, February 22, 2008

Omega-3 fatty acids and breastfeeding

Ever since the Bean was born, I have suffered from a debilitating medical condition known as Tofu Brain. Tofu Brain sufferers have actually had their lovely gray brains replaced with a creamy, lukewarm slab of medium-firm tofu. In my case, the slab of tofu is kind of crumbly, and there are a couple of chunks actually missing. Tofu Brain is more commonly known as "baby brain", and is also discussed by Bean-Mom here.

Back in the pre-Bean era, I thought that baby brain was a mental state of distraction. Of course you can't concentrate at work! You have an adorable baby waiting for you at home. And wouldn't you rather be home playing with your adorable baby than planning out a stupid cloning scheme on GCK? Of course you would.

But no. Baby brain isn't just a state of being distracted and sleep deprived. It's an actual state of decreased mental acuity. I can remember returning to work when the Bean was just three months old and having to give lab meeting the following week. I could barely speak. I would rack my brain for words like "sensitivity" or "release". Frankly, it was embarrassing.

Recently, Husband heard a seminar given by Bruce Ames. Ames was giving a seminar on his recent public health work looking at nutritional deficits and human health. One of the classes of nutrients that Ames discussed was Omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been all over the news (and your food labels) of late. From cardiovascular health to the treatment of mood disorders, Omega-3s are the current darlings of the pharmaconutrition world. Why are they important?

Omega-3s, including ALA, DHA, and EPA, are important structural components in building cell membranes. In particular, Omega-3s are in very high concentrations in the brain, with DHA prominent as THE major fatty acid of neural tissue. Noteably, long-chain Omega-3s like DHA and EPA are thought to be important in brain and organ development in newborns.

The best source of dietary Omega-3 fatty acids is salt-water fish. Unfortunately, most Americans do not incorporate salt-water fish into their diet at the recommended frequency (2 servings per week). In addition, pregnant and lactating women are often advised against incorporating too much fish into their diets for fear of mercury contamination.

Benisek, Shabert, and Skornik (2000) report that pregnant and lactating women in the United States consume an average of 54 mg of DHA daily. An expert panel convened by The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids made the recommendation that pregnant and lactating women should consume 300 mg of DHA daily (Simopoulos et al., 1999)...The level of DHA in breast milk is directly proportional to DHA in the maternal diet.
-Blanchard, 2006

Meta-analysis of some old studies of Omega-3 supplementation has been inconclusive, but the studies are suggestive that supplementation of Omega-3s during the third trimester and during lactation has a positive impact on the cognitive development of children. For this reason, formula makers have started producing baby formulas with added DHA, with the first formulations of this hitting the market back in 2002 (though I'd like to note here that getting your DHA-supplemented formula costs about 25% more... formula makers are continuing to produce and sell formula without DHA).

How does this all relate to my tofu brain?

Ames pointed out in his talk a recent paper in which the authors monitored the levels of long chain Omega-3s (specifically DHA) in red blood cells in both lactating mothers and their infants. The authors found that over the course of the 4 month study, DHA levels decreased in the lactating mothers, while DHA levels remained constant in the nursing newborns. Ames went on to note other anecdotal evidence (for which I have no references to offer) that DHA and other Omega-3s are being shunted by the nursing mother to her rapidly growing newborn. He jokingly(?) suggested that this could be responsible for the notorious decrease in mental acuity experienced by mothers of newborns, and recommended that breastfeeding mothers supplement their diet with Flax Oil to increase their dietary Omega-3s.

I've been taking Flax Oil since my second trimester, but have recently increased my daily intake. Time will tell if Bruce Ames is right, that the Bean is sucking my brains out directly through my boobs, leaving me with a crumbling pile of mushy tofu.

*Note, I am not a medical doctor, yada yada yada.

Edited to add
: Fish oil appears to be a much richer source of DHA than Flax Oil, which is primarily ALA. Fish oil, then, may be a better supplement for nursing moms.


The bean-mom said...

"sucking my brains out directly though my boobs"--I love it!

And wonderful, I have a new explanation for my tofu brain (I like your term better than "slime mold brain"; I think I'm going to steal it!)

Thank you so much for this post, Science-mama. Let's see if I can one day overcome distraction and procrastination enough to get a hold of some of that there flax oil...

autumnmist said...

On the bright side, there is some evidence that pregnancy/early childrearing makes females superior multitaskers.

EcoGeoFemme said...

how does the reduced/interrupted sleep fit in? Knowing how poorly I perform after just one night of bad sleep, I can imagine that the crummy sleep a new mother gets for months on end would have a pretty big effect on her mental acuity.

ScienceMama said...

I'm positive that's a factor too. But I can tell you that I'm still having a lot of trouble focusing, etc, even though now Bean usually wakes up between 0 and 1 times per night. When I was pregnant I got up more times than that just to pee, but wasn't nearly so foggy-headed...

Kate said...

This is something I've been interested in in my field of research -- not baby brain, but pregnancy, infant brains, and DHAs. Just so's you know, DHAs are stored primarily in gluteofemoral fat and are deposited there during pregnancy. Then that's the main place that the stored energy comes from that helps you to lactate. I've been taking a DHA supplement since my second trimester too, in the hopes of encouraging this fat deposition but also to help keep my circulating levels high (since right now my body is working hard against this to store every molecule it finds). So you're smart to keep taking your supplement! It does you and your little one good :).

Another Mom said...

Wow - I didn't know all that about DHA! I started taking it when Punkin was a couple months old to combat his eczema and cradle cap, but I never realized it was helping him grow, too!
As for combating tofu brain, I'm sad to report that 10+ months of DHA supplementing has left me no more competent or clear headed - I've managed to lock myself out of my car and home on more than one occasion, and have been known to stick various odd objects in the refrigerator.
But, this does not make us brainless! There's this great book called "The Female Brain" I've been meaning to write about that talks all about how our brain's priorities are just adjusted after birth for things, as autumnmist mentioned, like multitasking.

Susan said...

Thought you'd be interested in this short omega-3 video:

NourishLife said...

An intrepid male daring to comment here. Women are about five times better than men at many things including something crucial in this story - converting ALA (flax oil for example) into DHA. Remember its DHA that you and your baby need. However women only convert about 5% of ALA into DHA (men a paltry 1%), so you have to take an awful lot of flax seed oil to give you the equivalent of one high concentration fish oil capsule (most people's preferred choice) such as PharmaOmega Mom. Or if you don't or can't eat fish, your next best choice is to take an algae-derived DHA supplement.

ScienceMama said...

Thanks for the tip, Nourishinglife! I didn't realize there was such a huge difference in the ration of ALA to DHA between Flax Oil and Fish Oil!

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