n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Foetal Growth



Pregnancy is a period in a woman’s life when good nutrition is exceptionally important, for both the growing foetus and the health of the mother. Several studies have reported that marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are one of the macronutrients required for optimal perinatal development and growth. The n-3 PUFA docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22:6n-3) plays an important role in foetal development. The placenta transports DHA specifically and in concentrated amounts from the mother’s blood to the foetus. DHA is incorporated into cell membranes of the central nervous system and retina of the foetus, where it increases fluidity of the membranes and participates in various cell functions. Studies indicate that dietary intake of preformed DHA is necessary, because the synthesis of DHA in the human body is not sufficient to meet physiological needs. It has been suggested that maternal red blood cells (RBC) act as a reservoir of DHA. Maternal dietary n-3 PUFA is therefore the most important determinant of n-3 PUFA availability to the growing foetus, since maternal dietary n-3 PUFA intake is assumed to reflect the maternal n-3 PUFA status of RBC lipids. Foetal growth during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy has been shown to be a major determinant of birth weight, and the neonate’s brain experiences a tremendous increase in growth during late gestation and early postnatal life. Moreover, it is indicated that n-3 PUFA could be one of the factors programming the later health of the growing individual. A recent study reported an association between maternal diet and lifestyle during pregnancy and foetal growth. Mothers who consumed a diet classified as the ‘Western diet’ (mainly red meat and little fish), and who smoked, were more likely to give birth to a baby that was small for gestational age. Optimal outcome of pregnancy has been related to improved health of the offspring later in life. The foetus’ birth weight and the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in adult life are dependent on the mother’s nutrition and lifestyle during intrauterine life. The responsibility of women of reproductive age and during the pregnancy is therefore great, since they have to consume fish oil and/or seafood in order to have a reservoir of n-3 PUFA. In this chapter, an attempt is made to give an overview of the maternal status of blood DHA during pregnancy, intrauterine DHA sources, and their association with foetal growth.


Foetal Growth High Birth Weight PUFA Intake PUFA Status Maternal Adipose Tissue 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Arachidonic acid (20:4n-6)


α-Linolenic acid (18:3n-3)


Docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)


Docosapentaenoic acid (22:5n-3)


Eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3)


Linoleic acid (LA, 18:2n-6)




Polyunsaturated fatty acids


Red blood cells


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, School of Health SciencesUniversity of IcelandReykjavikIceland

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