Pregnant and nursing mothers could reduce their risk of postpartum depression, and improve the neurological development of their infants, by increasing their consumption of the essential fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), according to the Mother and Child Foundation. The foundation, an international nonprofit organization, investigates the role of nutrition in maternal and infant health.
Speaking at a recent conference of the American Chemical Society, David Kyle, the foundation's U.S. director, said, "We believe that the high incidence of postpartum depression in the United States may be triggered by a low dietary intake of DHA." As many as 20 percent of women suffer from postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis, and the recent murders of her five children by Andrea Yates have raised awareness of the dangers of these conditions.
Kyle cited a recent study by Joseph Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health, which found a strong inverse correlation between the incidence of postpartum depression and levels of DHA in breast milk. Earlier research by Hibbeln and colleagues found a highly significant inverse correlation between DHA intake and clinical depression in general.
A separate study, by Gerrard Hornstra of the Netherlands, found that maternal DHA stores are depleted in pregnant women because DHA is transferred to the fetus.
DHA levels in breast milk are dependent on dietary intake, and Kyle noted that U.S. women consume only about 40-50 milligrams of DHA per day compared to 600 milligrams for Japanese women and 200 milligrams for European women. "The DHA content of mother's milk in the United States is among the lowest in the world," he said.
Research has revealed that DHA also plays a crucial role in infants' visual and intellectual development (see related article, Crime Times, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 2, Page 7). Kyle noted that babies nursed by mothers receiving supplements sufficient to double their breast milk DHA performed significantly better on tests of motor function as toddlers than those nursed by unsupplemented mothers.
Expectant and nursing mothers can obtain DHA from supplements or from dietary sources such as fish (excluding those with high mercury levels which should be avoided), chicken, and eggs. DHA was approved as an ingredient in infant formulas in 2001.
"Fatty acid could offset postpartum depression and improve babies' development," press release, American Chemical Society, April 8, 2002.