We have long been concerned about the impact of stressful life events on pregnancy outcomes.  There is data to indicate that stress experienced during pregnancy may increase the risk of various adverse outcomes, including increased risk of preterm birth and lower birth weight. Other studies suggest that prenatal exposure to maternal stress may also increase the risk of later psychopathology in the child, increasing the exposed child’s risk of being diagnosed with ADHD, mood and anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.

While there is much information highlighting the negative effects of stress during pregnancy, we have much less information on how to reduce stress levels in pregnant women.  A study to be published in the  December issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology examines the efficacy of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid, to reduce stress levels in a population of women at risk for high stress during pregnancy.

The researchers focused on a cohort of women with high levels of psychosocial stressors: a group of 64 African-American women who were either receiving or eligible to receive Medicaid. All participants lived in urban, low-income environments and were between 20 and 30 years old. The participants were between 16 and 21 weeks pregnant and were randomly assigned to receive either 450 mg of DHA per day (n=43) or placebo (n=21). Research assistants checked on participants three times a week by telephone to determine whether they were taking their supplements on schedule.  Stress levels were assessed using self-report questionnaires and cortisol levels in saliva samples.

At 30 weeks of pregnancy, perceived stress was significantly lower in women taking DHA supplements compared to women receiving the placebo (P = .029). In addition, cortisol output in response to a stressful situation was 20% lower in the women who received DHA than in the placebo group (P = .004).

This is a small study and must be replicated in larger, more diverse populations; however, it is impressive that a statistically significant difference was seen in such a small study.  That said, DHA supplementation may be a novel method for attenuating the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy.


Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

Keenan K, Hipwell AE, Bortner J, Hoffmann A, McAloon R.  Association between fatty acid supplementation and prenatal stress in AfricanAmericans: a randomized controlled trial.  Obstet Gynecol. 2014 Dec;124(6):1080-7.


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