Nutrition and Foetal Brain Development
Good nutrition is important throughout a person’s life but it is potentially most important in the prenatal phase (in the womb) as this is where most of the brain’s development occurs.1a
How the brain develops in the womb
In the first few days of pregnancy the foetal nervous system – one of the first systems of the human body – starts to develop. From it, the brain and spinal cord progress. By the end of the pregnancy, the brain has grown dramatically and is capable of learning and forming memories.1b
How the brain develops depends on the intake of specific nutrients at specific times, which makes nutrition the most influential non-genetic factor in brain development.2a Whether your first baby or your third, pregnancy demands a lot from your body. So, it is important to ensure that you have what you need to stay strong.
EFAs: What they are and why they matter
EFAs (essential fatty acids), such as Omega-3, are responsible for healthy foetal brain development. From conception until birth, your body naturally prioritises the foetus by diverting EFAs from you to your baby. This could leave you more likely to have an Omega-3 deficiency.3a
While Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are important for foetal brain development, they can also provide protective benefits by helping to prevent certain pregnancy complications such as: 3b, 4a
- Pre-term labour and delivery
- Preeclampsia – a condition that occurs only in pregnancy with symptoms that may include high blood pressure and protein in the urine
How EFAs work
The three main Omega 3 fatty acids are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)5a
ALA is sometimes referred to as a ‘true’ essential fatty acid because your body cannot manufacture it on its own.6 While the body converts ALA into EPA and then to DHA, the converted quantities are minimal. Consequently, it is critical that you eat sufficient amounts of foods rich in Omega-3s and take supplements where necessary to get the balance of nutrients you and your baby need.
Foods that feed your baby’s brain
The standard western diet is severely deficient in these nutrients, which is compounded by the fact that pregnant women become depleted in Omega-3s because the foetus uses them for its nervous system. As a result, you need to be particularly conscientious about regularly eating foods high in the main Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA and DHA).
Equally, the standard western diet includes too many Omega-6 fatty acids found in many vegetable oils, poultry (chicken, duck and turkey) and eggs. However, there is one Omega-6 fatty acid that is important for brain development called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).9
Getting the right balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 (specifically GLA) essential fatty acids to ensure optimal foetal brain development is critical.
Foods high in ALA
Plant-based foods such as nuts and seeds are high in ALA. Examples include flaxseeds, walnuts, canola, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, cashew nuts, and chia seeds.5b
Foods high in EPA and DHA
Your best source of EPA and DHA comes from oily fish. Pregnancy nutrition can be confusing, particularly when it comes to seafood (fish and shellfish). When choosing your fish consider these precautions7:
- Avoid large, predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tile fish and these are inclined to have higher mercury levels
- Select fish low in mercury and high in Omega 3s including salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, trout and mackerel
- Remember that how you cook your fish impacts Omega-3 intake – for example, grill your fish instead of frying it
- Pay attention to local fish advisories when you eat fish from local waters
Foods high in GLA
- Flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal
- Hemp seed oil, hemp seeds
- Grapeseed oil
- Seeds such pumpkin seeds and raw sunflower seeds
- Nuts, including pignolia (pine) nuts and pistachios
- Borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil
- Acai (small, dark blackish-purple, berry-like fruit)10
DHA and your baby’s brain
While EPA and DHA naturally occur together in the body, each has unique benefits. Where EPA supports the heart, immune system, and inflammatory response8. DHA supports the brain, eyes and central nervous system, which is why it is uniquely important for pregnant women.3c
DHA especially plays a crucial role in brain and neural tissue development:
- Concentrated in the central nervous system, DHA is the primary fatty acid in the brain2b
- DHA is highest in the system during the last trimester of pregnancy, at the time of the foetal brain’s growth spurt – the brain nearly doubles in size and develops significantly2c
Please note: This is educational information only and should not be used for diagnosis. For more information on nutrition and brain foetal development, consult your healthcare professional.
Oxford University Press Academic Insights for the Thinking World. The Lifelong Importance of nutrition in pregnancy brain development.
Available at https://blog.oup.com/2016/07/nutrition-pregnancy-prenatal-brain-development. Accessed 29 January 2019
Gould JF, et al. BMJ Open 2018;8:e020043. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020043
American Pregnancy Association. Omega-3 fish oil and pregnancy. Available at: http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/omega-3-fish-oil/. Accessed September 2018.
Psychcentral.org. The importance of Omega-3 fatty acids in pregnancy. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-importance-of-omega-3-fatty-acids-in-pregnancy/. Accessed September 2018.
National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/. Accessed 29 January 2019
Omega-3s Always a good idea. Fact: Not all omega-3s are created equal. Available at: https://alwaysomega3s.com/learn/epa-dha-ala-omega-3s. Accessed 29 January 2019.
Mayo Clinic. Pregnancy week by week. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy-and-fish/art-20044185. Accessed September 2018.
Akerele OA, et al. J Nutr Intermed Metab. 2016;5:23-33.
Life Extension. The Beneficial Omega-6 Fatty Acid. Available at: https://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2011/1/the-beneficial-omega-6-fatty-acid/page-01. Accessed 12 February 2019.
Pursuit of Research. The Importance of Omega-6 including GLA an Anti-inflammatory Nutrient. Available at: https://pursuitofresearch.org/2017/11/29/the-importance-of-omega-6-2/. Accessed 12 February 2019.
Kidd PM. Altern Med Rev. 2007 Sep;12(3):207-27.
Richardson AJ et al. Pediatrics. 2005 May;115(5):1360-6.
Sinn N et al. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2008;78(4-5):311-26.