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Eat More Fish and Stress Less While Pregnant?

Katlyn Joy |25, July 2013


A new study published in the peer-reviewed PLoS One found a connection between a diet where expectant mothers ate oily fish one to three times a week reported lower levels of stress in pregnancy than those who didn't.

The researchers at the University of Pelotas in Brazil and research centers in the US and UK looked at the dietary habits of 9500 pregnant women as part of the study. The women were given a questionnaire about their diets and anxiety levels at the 32 week of pregnancy.

The women were asked eight questions to reveal their level of anxiety. The questions included such queries as how often they felt upset for no obvious reason, or felt that they were going to pieces. Those scoring in the top 15 percent were labeled as having high anxiety.

The questionnaire included 150 dietary questions which then enabled researchers to label each woman's diet as one of the following categories; health-conscious, traditional, processed, confectionary and vegetarian.

Specific questions about fish included how often the women ate white fish including cod, haddock, plaice and fish fingers, dark or oily fish including tuna, sardines, pilchards, mackerel, herring, kippers, trout and salmon, and shellfish such as prawns, crabs, cockels and mussels.

However, other factors were linked to lower anxiety. Women whose diets were primarily health-conscious or traditional were less stressed. For the purpose of the study health-conscious means a diet high in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains. A traditional diet means eating red meat, poultry and vegetables.

Factors linked to higher maternal anxiety levels included being younger than 25 years of age, lower education levels, unemployment, those living in crowded housing or public housing, women who already have two or more children, previous history of abortion or miscarriage, smokers, those who suffered adverse life events in childhood or those experiencing stress in current living situations.

Women eating health-conscious diets were 23 percent less likely to have high levels of anxiety, than those of least health-conscious diets.

Women eating traditional diets were 16 percent less likely to have high levels of anxiety than those eating the least traditional diets.

Women who had eaten no dark or oily fish were 38 percent more likely to report high levels of anxiety compared with those who ate it 1 to 3 times a week.

One unusual and unexpected finding was that those who ate a vegetarian diet were 25 percent more likely to report high levels of anxiety than those eating a non-vegetarian diet.

While the study is interesting there are some more questions to be answered. For instance, do high anxiety levels lead to different eating patterns or do different eating patterns lead to anxiety?

Since diet and anxiety were assessed in the study at the same time it is unknown whether dietary patterns were set before the anxiety symptoms occurred or not.

The researchers believe their findings indicate that dietary interventions could be used to reduce anxiety levels in pregnant women. However, they agree that case studies would be a logical method to test out the theory.

While eating a healthy diet is a no-brainer for a pregnant woman, how that diet affects mood during pregnancy is still not firmly established although this study is a starting point. Other factors may also affect anxiety, such as physical activity. Physical activity or exercise was not looked at as a variable in this study.

One thing to remember is that other studies have pointed out that pregnant women should avoid fish high in mercury, or at least limit their intake. The FDA recommends pregnant women have no more than 12 ounces of low mercury fish per week, highest mercury fish avoided altogether, and higher mercury fish limited to 3 6 ounce servings a month.

Highest Mercury Level Fish
Bigeye and ahi tuna, marlin, mackerel, orange roughy, tilefish, swordfish, shark.
Higher Mercury Level Fish: Chilean sea bass, bluefish, grouper, Spanish or gulf mackerel, canned white albacore tuna, and yellowfin tuna.

Lower Mercury Level Fish:
Striped and black bass, carp, Alaskan cod, white pacific croaker, Pacific and Atlantic Halibut, jacksmelt, lobster, mahi mahi, monkfish, freshwater perch, sablefish, skate, snapper, sea trout, skipjack tuna and canned chunk light tuna.

Lowest Mercury Level Fish:
anchovies, butterfish, catfish, clam, domestic crab, crawfish, croaker, flounder, haddock, hake, herring, North Atlantic mackerel, mullet, oyster, ocean perch, plaice, salmon, sardines, scallops, American shad, shrimp, sole, squid, tilapia, freshwater trout, whitefish, whiting.

Sources: Nursing Times, American Pregnancy

Katlyn Joy is a mother to 7 children, and a freelance writer. She earned her Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Poetry, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and was previously an adviser to new mothers on breastfeeding through a maternity home program. She currently resides in Colorado with her family.

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