DHA Supplements Reduce Infant Cold Occurrence in Population Study

August 2, 2011

Researchers deployed a large population trial on pregnant women supplementing with omega-3 DHA.

Responding to a lack of published science on omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and infant immune function, researchers from Emory University (Atlanta) and the National Institute of Public Health in Cuernavaca, Mexico deployed a large population trial on omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplementation in pregnant women. The results have been published in the August 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

DHA is understood as being transferable from mother to infant through breastfeeding, and since long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are known to modulate immune function and inflammation, the researchers posited that prenatal maternal DHA supplementation might influence immune function in infants.

A sample of 1094 pregnant women in Mexico was assigned to daily supplementation of DHA capsules (400 mg/day) or placebo capsules from 18 to 22 weeks gestation to childbirth. Mothers or caregivers completed 15-day recall questionnaires on common illness symptoms experienced by the infants at one, three, and six months of age.

Birth outcomes, rates of exclusive breastfeeding, and rates of infant death were similar in both groups, but occurrence and duration of illness symptoms were at times markedly different.

At one month of age, the DHA group experienced reduced cold occurrence and shorter durations of cough, phlegm, and wheezing.  The DHA group also experienced fewer illnesses overall at one and three months of age.

At 3 months of age, infants in the DHA group spent 14% less time ill than children in the placebo group, and at six months of age, infants in the DHA group experienced shorter duration of nasal secretion, difficulty breathing, fever, and rash.

Exceptions to DHA improving illness factors included longer duration of rash at one month of age and longer duration of vomiting at six months of age.

Lead author Beth Imhoff-Kunsch, MPH, PhD of Emory University summarized the team’s findings:

 

Overall, infants in the DHA group were determined to be healthier on the basis of the observation that fewer of these infants experienced a cold at 1 month, and they experienced a significantly shorter duration of all illnesses at 3 months, but longer duration of a few symptoms at certain time points…Although we observed some heterogeneity in our results, 9 of the 12 estimates were in the direction of a beneficial effect of DHA.

 

Numerous studies have linked omega-3 supplementation to reduced occurrence and duration of certain childhood illnesses. This study provides further supporting evidence that DHA, via prenatal maternal supplementation, influenced the occurrence and duration of illness symptoms in infants.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the March of Dimes Foundation.