Pregnant women living in high-stress situations may benefit from supplements of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), according to a randomized controlled trial published online November 5 and in the December issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology. The reduction in cortisol output may improve the uterine environment for the developing fetus.
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Sixty-four black women who were between 16 and 21 weeks pregnant and who were either receiving or eligible to receive Medicaid enrolled in the study. All participants lived in urban, low-income environments and were between 20 and 30 years old. Researchers randomly assigned the women to receive either 450 mg of DHA per day or a placebo. Research assistants checked on participants three times a week by telephone to determine whether they were taking their supplements on schedule.
The investigators measured participants' stress levels through self-report on questionnaires and through saliva sample tests both at the start of the study and at 24 and 30 weeks of pregnancy. The saliva tests measured the women's cortisol levels before and after they took the Trier Social Stress Test, which measures stress levels in response to various mental exercises, such as solving math problems and giving a speech. The researchers controlled for depression and negative life events.
At 30 weeks of pregnancy, perceived stress was significantly lower among participants supplementing with DHA compared with among women receiving the placebo (P = .029). In addition, cortisol output in response to a stressful situation was 20% lower in the women who received the supplement than in the placebo group (P = .004).