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Maternal breast milk long-chain n-3 fatty acids are associated with increased risk of atopy in breastfed infants


Assoc. Prof. Frank Thien, Department of Allergy, Immunology and Respiratory Medicine, The Alfred Hospital, Commercial Rd, Melbourne, Vic. 3004, Australia. Email:


Background Australia has one of the highest prevalence rates internationally of allergic conditions, such as asthma and eczema. Atopy is one hallmark for the development of allergic disease and predisposes to allergic inflammation in the target organs. ω-3 (n-3) fatty acids (FAs) are thought to act as precursors to the formation of less active inflammatory mediators, with the potential to reduce inflammation.

Objective To investigate whether increased n-3 FA levels in maternal breast milk are associated with a lower risk of developing atopy in infancy.

Methods Subjects were part of the prospective Melbourne atopy cohort study, which involved 620 children born into families where at least one first-degree relative had an atopic disease. Some 224 women (mean age 31.4±4.2 (SD) years, with 73.2% (n=164) having self-reported atopy) provided either a colostrum (n=194) or 3-month expressed breast milk (EBM) sample (n=118). Maternal colostrum and 3-month EBM samples were analysed for FA content by gas chromatography. Skin prick tests (SPTs) to six common allergens were performed on infants at 6, 12 and 24 months of age and on mothers who agreed at study entry.

Results For infants sensitized to foods at 6 months (n=29), the total n-3 FA level in the colostrum was significantly higher (P=0.004) as were levels of individual long-chain n-3 FAs, docosoapentaenoic acid (DPA, C22:5, P=0.001) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, C22:6, P=0.002) than in non-sensitized infants. Infants with aero-allergen sensitization at 24 months (n=30) had higher levels of the n-3 FA, DPA (P=0.002) and DHA (P=0.007), and similarly higher total n-3 FA (P=0.009) in maternal colostrum than those infants who were not sensitized.

Conclusion Higher n-3 FA levels in the colostrum do not appear to confer protection against, but may be a risk factor for, the eventual development of atopy in high-risk breastfed infants.

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