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Prenatal Fish Exposure Not As Dangerous As Believed

When I was pregnant with my son, it felt like the list of things I had to avoid was longer than the list of things I could have - from my favorite sauvignon blanc to my allergy medication. One of the things I didn’t miss was fish - I’m not a seafood eater, and I got my omega-3s from supplements. Now new research is suggesting that pregnant woman may not need to limit their fish intake to two servings a week.

The recommendation to limit fish to just two servings a week comes from the high mercury levels in some fish, because mercury is known to cause birth defects and other problems. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other international agencies are revising their guidelines in an attempt to better reflect the nutritional benefits of fish.

The link between fish consumption and childhood development problems has never been well-established, while the fatty acids in fish are known to benefit the developing fetal brain. 

A partnership between the University of Rochester Medical Center, NY, Ulster University in Belfast, UK, and the Republic of Seychelles Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education yielded the Seychelles Child Development Study. Residents of the Seychelles consume around 10 times as much fish in their diets as people in the US or Europe, making them the ideal population to study.

More than 1500 mothers and children participated in the study. Hair samples were collected from pregnant women to measure mercury and polyunsaturated fatty acid levels, while a battery of tests to study communication skills, behavior and motor skills began at 20 months after birth and continued until the children were in their 20s.

There was no link between prenatal mercury exposure and lower test scores. There was no association at all between consumption of fish during pregnancy and impaired neurological development in their children. However, the researchers found that the children of mothers with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acid found in fish performed better on some tests. 

The results also suggested that omega-3s may have some benefit in blocking the effects of mercury. Philip Davidson, PhD, the lead author of the study, says “it appears that the relationship between fish nutrients and mercury may be far more complex than previously appreciated.”

Me? I’m just happy I popped so many omega-3 pills during my pregnancy, and that I have my smart and energetic toddler to show for it!


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