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.
shows that dietary intake of omega-3 in the mother may prevent type
1 diabetes in the infant receiving her breast milk.
Dr 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
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
The researchers examined 7,782 infants between 3 and 24 months
old who were at genetic risk of developing type
They monitored their islet cell autoantibodies, taking blood
samples regularly. Blood samples were also taken up to the age of
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.