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Taking fish oil supplements in late pregnancy might reduce the risk of children developing asthma

In the context of European research on early nutritional programming, a team of researchers has traced the children born from mothers who had taken part in a trial.

According to their work, the risk of developing asthma was reduced by 63% in those whose mothers had been given fish oil supplements during the last trimester of their pregnancy. This study is part of the EU funded EARNEST project with scientists from 38 institutions in 16 European countries. It is published today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The research was carried out by a team from Denmark as part of the EU-funded EARNEST project, a project of the Sixth European Framework Programme for Research and Development. In the original trial conducted in 1990, more than 500 pregnant women were randomised into three different groups for the last 10 weeks of their pregnancy. One group was given fish oil supplements, another olive oil supplements and the third no supplements.

The aim of that trial was to see whether fish oil reduced the risk of pre-term delivery and low birth weight. Mothers in the fish oil supplementation group increased, on average, the length of their pregnancies by 4 days and the average birth weight of their babies by about 100g. The researchers managed to trace all but three of the babies born to the mothers in the original trial. By the time they were sixteen years old, 19 children had developed such severe asthma at some point that they had had to go to hospital. There were though proportionally fewer children in the fish oil group compared with other groups. The risk of developing asthma was reduced by 63% in those whose mothers had been given fish oil supplements.

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According to the lead investigator, there is strong biochemical evidence that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may have effects on the immune system. The reason fish oil might protect a foetus from developing asthma in later life could possibly also be related to its effect on increasing pregnancy duration.

Pre-term children have a higher risk of developing asthma and it is possible that the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oils could both reduce the risk of pre-term birth and the likelihood of a baby later becoming asthmatic. It may be that the period shortly before delivery is the critical window for these effects of omega 3 fatty acids.

However, it is important that these first results are confirmed by other trials before changing any dietary recommendations for pregnant women.

This study was carried out as part of a much larger ongoing research project funded by the European Commission to investigate the effects of early nutrition on later health outcomes, the Early Nutrition Programming Project

The implications of early nutrition programming are important: differences in risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity, in immune function and allergy risk. The potential for improving the health of future generations is enormous and the European Commission intends to develop this research in the 7the Framework Programme (2007-2013).

More on EARNEST: it is a five years project (2005-2010) funded under the Food Quality and Safety Priority of the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Development and the EU is contributing 13.4 millions EUR. It is following up a number of intervention trials in early life to see whether the interventions have long term effects on programming various physiological functions.

Catherine Ray | alfa
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