Omega-3 intake through mother's breast milk may lower type 1 diabetes risk

New research suggests that an early intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids through the mother's breast milk may lower the risk of type 1 diabetes in infants.

Research shows that dietary intake of omega-3 in the mother may prevent type 1 diabetes in the infant receiving her breast milk.

Mother -and -daughter -diabetes

Sari -NiinistöDr Sari Niinistö, of the National Institute of Health and Welfare in Helsinki, Finland, and team set out to investigate whether or not maternal intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can help to prevent type 1 diabetes in infants.


The results revealed that high serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids correlated with a lower risk of insulin autoimmunity.


Specifically, high levels of docosahexaenoic acid and docosapentaenoic acid seemed to lower the risk.


However, a high ratio of alpha-linolenic acid to docosahexaenoic acid, as well as a large ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, was associated with a higher risk of autoimmunity.


Additionally, the researchers found a correlation between fatty acids and the type of milk feeding.


Infants who had been breastfed had increased serum levels of fatty acids - such as pentadecanoic acid, palmitic acid, docosapentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid - and had a lower risk of autoimmunity, compared with infants who were fed cow's milk-based formula.

By contrast, a higher intake of formula correlated with an increased risk of autoimmunity.


Dr Sari Niinistö and colleagues summarize their findings:

"[Our] findings support the view that breastfeeding, or some components of breast milk, including fatty acids, are protective, particularly with early autoimmunity [and] that long-chain omega-3 status during the early months, at a time when the immune system is maturing and being programmed, is critical."


However, the authors caution that their study is purely observational and, as a result, does not explain causality.


Omega-3 fats are a subtype of polyunsaturated fats - that is, the "good" kind of fat - and are found most commonly in fish and fish oil, although they can also be found in nuts, leafy vegetables, and other vegetable oils.


Dr Niinistö and team used data from the Finnish Type 1 Diabetes Prediction and Prevention Study.


They examined whether particularly high serum levels of omega-3 during infancy are associated with autoimmunity development in children who already had a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes.


The researchers examined 7,782 infants between 3 and 24 months old who were at genetic risk of developing type 1 diabetes.


They monitored their islet cell autoantibodies, taking blood samples regularly. Blood samples were also taken up to the age of 15.


Pancreatic islets are clusters of cells that contain the insulin-producing beta cells.


The researchers also used food questionnaires and diaries to track the use of breastfed milk and formula - which are the two main sources of fatty acids for infants.


Of these newborns, 240 infants, together with 480 controls, developed islet autoimmunity.


The researchers analysed the samples of serum fatty acids that had been collected at 3 and 6 months old.


The researchers also looked for insulin and glutamic acid decarboxylase autoantibodies in these patients - both markers of type 1 diabetes.



Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is a primary structural component of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, and retina. It can be synthesized from alpha-linolenic acid or obtained directly from maternal milk (breast milk), fish oil, or algae oil.

Docosapentaenoic acid designates any straight chain 22:5 fatty acid, that is a straight chain open chain type of polyunsaturated fatty acid which contains 22 carbons and 5 double bonds. Classification: Omega-3 fatty acid, Omega-6 fatty acid

αlpha-Linolenic acid (ALA) is an n−3 fatty acid. It is one of two essential fatty acids (the other being linoleic acid), so called because they are necessary for health and cannot be produced within the human body. They must be acquired through diet. ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid found in seeds (chia, flaxseed, hemp), nuts (notably walnuts), and many common vegetable oils.

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