Eating Fish During Pregnancy and Lactation May Benefit Mother and Child

Here's food for thought: A range of recent studies suggests a link between eating fish and overall mental health, especially the prevention of postpartum depression. A study published in the October 2001 Journal of Affective Disorders found an inverse relationship between fish consumption and postpartum depression in 23 countries.

South Africans eat an average of 8.6 pounds of fish per year, and one-fourth (24.5 per cent) of women reported postpartum depression. By contrast, in Singapore, where the average person consumes 81.1 pounds of fish per year, only one-half of 1 percent of mothers reported postpartum depression. The U.S. fell in the middle, consuming 48.1 pounds of fish per year and reporting signs of depression in 11.1 percent of new mothers.

Researchers also found that the breast milk of women who eat a lot of fish contains high levels of docosahexaenoic, or DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid crucial in the development of nerve and eye cells. For that reason the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently gave permission to include it in infant formula.

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Two studies in the August 2001 issue of Pediatrics explore the merits of omega-3 fatty acids for infants. The first study found that adding DHA and another omega-3, arachidonic acid, to formula benefited infants' vision, movement and vocabulary. A study of full-term infants found no benefits. Both were sponsored by Ross Products Division, Abbott Laboratories.

There is also evidence that DHA and related fatty acids can help prevent major depression, bipolar disease and even schizophrenia.

"We're depleted of these substances. That may be why they're working for a whole range of psychiatric disorders," says Andrew Stoll, M.D., of McLean Hospital in Boston.

The FDA warns pregnant and nursing women and small children not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, because they may be contaminated with mercury. If you don't like fish, take a one-gram fish oil capsule every day, advises William Connor, M.D., of Oregon Health Sciences University.

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