If you love fish and you're pregnant, new research suggests eating lots of it might help you avoid delivering your baby too soon.
The researchers found that women who had the lowest levels of fatty acids from fish during their first and second trimester were 10 times more likely to have a preterm birth than women who had the highest levels of those fatty acids.
The report was published online in EBioMedicine.
Risk of serious health problems
Study author Dr Sjurdur Olsen, an epidemiologist from Harvard School of Public Health, said there are now three different types of studies linking consumption of the fatty acids in fish – known as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – with better outcomes.
"Taken together, [these studies] substantiate the notion that if you have a lower intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, increasing your intake will lower your risk of preterm birth," Olsen said.
Approximately 15 million babies worldwide are born premature each year, according to the March of Dimes. In the United States, almost one in 10 babies is born prematurely, putting them at risk for serious health problems.
The exact cause of preterm birth is still unknown, according to the study authors. Researchers have noted that in certain areas with high fish consumption, pregnancies seem to last longer. This spurred the initial research into why and how eating more fish might help reduce preterm births.
The latest study looked at births in Denmark from 1996 to 2002. The data included information on more than 100 000 pregnancies. From that large group, the researchers looked for women pregnant for the first time who were only pregnant with one child. They excluded women with pre-existing health or pregnancy conditions that could increase the risk of preterm birth.
Benefit of long-chain fatty acids
The investigators ended up with 376 women who delivered before 34 weeks of gestation and, for comparison, a group of 348 women who didn't deliver early. All of the women had blood samples taken in the first and second trimester of pregnancy.
These samples measured the amount of long-chain fatty acids – in particular, those commonly known as EPA and DHA – in the women's blood.
Olsen said because the researchers only measured blood levels of the fatty acids, it's not clear how much fish or fish oil the women may have consumed.
How these fatty acids might prevent preterm birth isn't yet known. This study was only designed to find an association, not cause and effect. But one theory is that these fatty acids may reduce inflammation, which somehow reduces preterm birth risk, Olsen said.
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